People might wonder what sea lions have to do with senior centers and after school programs. If you live in a coastal community in Southwest Alaska, you would know they are tightly entangled. How? Overly stringent federal rules intended to increase sea lion numbers in Western Alaska can deep-six a town's budget faster than you can say man overboard.
Next month longtime fishing communities like Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, Akutan, King Cove and Sand Point will finally know if new sea lion protective measures might scuttle their cities' future operating and capital budgets. That is when federal overseers are scheduled to unveil a long overdue and highly guarded new "biological opinion" on the wellbeing of Steller sea lions throughout the westward region.
The population numbers of Western Alaska sea lions began to decline sharply in the 1980s, and the animals were listed in 1990 by the federal government as a threatened species. No scientific connection has ever been made between commercial fishing and the dwindling number of sea lions, but that listing forced a patchwork of closures and no-fishing zones anywhere near sea lion rookeries and haul-outs throughout the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea.
In 2000, lawsuits by environmental groups led a federal court in Washington state to order a shut-down of all fishing in sea lion "critical habitat" areas. With the stroke of a far away pen, Alaska trawlers, longliners and pot boats were displaced up to 20 miles from traditional fishing grounds, and some fisheries in the Aleutian Islands were cut off completely. The resulting estimated losses to fishery dependent communities topped $200 million. Thankfully, the shutdown was lifted after the first season, and the Steller sea lion regulations left in place were not as egregiously negative and destructive to these communities, so we were able to adapt somewhat over time.
For most fishery-dependent communities, the seafood industry is not only our primary business -- it is the primary tax base for our local governments to provide services. The immediate and significant loss of revenues resulting from these new sea-lion policies immediately affected our ability to take care of our communities' basic needs. City officials and municipal managers scrambled to rework budgets to cover the cost of a lunch program for at-risk elders ... an afterschool program for kids whose parents work ... or extra funding to clear the snow and keep roads safe during our notoriously ferocious winters.
Since then, published science suggests that sea lion numbers have slowly but steadily increased each year by 12 percent (National Marine Fisheries Service numbers) in all but one region of the Aleutians. This is very good news, but there is a genuine fear that the new biological opinion might skew to past assumptions, and short weight the latest scientific findings on factors affecting recovery -- such as killer whales accounting for 40 percent to 80 percent of sea lion mortality, or changes in diet due to ocean conditions.
What worries us most is that the sea lion decision may be an appeasement to litigation threats by conservationists who want more restrictive measures to protect the "threatened" animals, even when the collected science of the past 10 years does not support a finding that commercial fishing is a cause of their decline. Once again, communities will be the ones to take the hit, and tragically, policies meant to strengthen sea lion populations will not do so, because they are not targeting the real causes of what appears to be a naturally occurring decline or re-distribution of these mammals.
The Bering Sea fishing industry is an appreciated partner of many successful small communities in Alaska. Here in the heart of the Bering Sea pollock and cod fisheries, we have grown accustomed to building annual city budgets around fisheries that are stable, well-managed and sustainable. The legitimate concern that our lives and livelihoods could be disrupted again by an inaccurate and damaging new scientific opinion is a bitter pill that won't go down easily.
Shirley Marquardt is the mayor of Unalaska.