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The endangered Steller sea lion. (Photo: NOAA)

Alaska sues govt over fishing ban in Aleutians

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Friday, December 17, 2010, 23:00 (GMT + 9)

Alaska is suing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to try to overturn a rule meant to restrict fishing in the Western Aleutian Islands. Designed to defend the western population of Steller sea lions, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the regulation is set to go into force on 1 January.

The move to shut down the Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries in the Western Aleutian Islands was planned to allow the sea lions more available fish to feed on.

This Steller sea lion stock has shrunk by 45 per cent from 2000 to 2008, and according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) one of the major factors responsible for this decline may be lack of food.

NMFS, whose announcement came last week, has henceforth gained many opponents in the fishing industry.

According to the state of Alaska, these fisheries employ as many as 900 people, meaning that the closure could cause losses of more than USD 66 million. State officials have expressed worry that the restrictions are not justified by the research conducted on the decline of Steller sea lion stock.

Alaska claims that limiting fishing is unnecessary because the sea lion population is growing between 1-1.5 per cent annually, The Associated Press reports.

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"We filed the lawsuit for basically two reasons," said Doug Vincent-Lang, Alaska's endangered species coordinator, reports KUCB News. "One is to get a more adequate explanation of the foundational science used to justify the action.¨

¨Number two: there were some process concerns. We don't feel that the NMFS adequately used the process and the legal requirements associated with the process to be able to adopt these regulations under interim final rules and implementing them on 1 January. And we think that they should be held to using the processes that they're legally bound to use," he concluded.

On the other hand, Jon Warrenchuk, an ocean scientist for the conservation group Oceana, believes the best scientific data available demonstrates that commercial fishing indeed affects regional sea lions.

"They eat Atka mackerel, cod, pollock, salmon to some extent," commented Warrenchuk. "In different areas of Alaska, some populations are doing better than others.¨

¨In the Aleutians, they're doing the absolute poorest and are on a trajectory toward eventual extirpation. In other words, there won't be sea lions in that area anymore if these trends continue," he cautioned.

Michael LeVine, a lawyer with Oceana, said NMFS´s biological opinion on sea lions is based on 15 years of scientific research.

"The science shows that the competition between fisheries and sea lions is occurring throughout the range of the western population," he affirmed.

The state of Alaska is requesting that the US District Court provide an expedited review of their lawsuit and attempting to get a hold on the regulation that would preclude fishery closures from being implemented in two weeks´ time.

Related article:

- NOAA restricts mackerel and cod fishing to protect sea lions 

By Natalia Real
editorial@fis.com
www.fis.com

Photo Courtesy of FIS Member  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA/NMFS
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