Fishermen state their case against ban to aid sea lions

Elizabeth Bluemink

Some fearful and upset fishermen testified in Anchorage on Thursday against a federal proposal to shut down key commercial fisheries in the western Aleutians to provide more fish for the region's dwindling sea lion population.

The National Marine Fisheries Service issued an 836-page biological opinion this month that says the population of endangered Steller sea lions west of Adak is not recovering and remains in steep decline. The agency proposed fishing closures and restrictions in the region to limit competition between fishermen and sea lions seeking food.

The agency's proposal would end commercial fishing for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in federal waters near Attu, the farthest Aleutian island. The proposal also would limit fishing for mackerel and cod in the central Aleutians, west of Dutch Harbor.

Agency officials estimated the annual value of fish caught in the affected area is about $30 million to fishermen, and the wholesale value is probably three times that amount.

At the hearing in Anchorage on Thursday, fishermen argued for less severe restrictions, but environmentalists say the proposal is overdue.

"People are acting like this is a surprise, but (the sea lion decline) has been talked about for 10 years," said Jim Ayers, a consultant who advocates on marine consultation issues.

"This is an issue of responsible stewardship, and we have all allowed this to go on. None of us have faced the music, and there is just no longer the opportunity to harvest until we collapse," Ayers said.

But some fishermen argued at the hearing, hosted by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which will advise the federal agency on whether to restrict fishing, that the agency hasn't assembled the evidence needed to prove their harvest is harming the sea lions. They said it isn't fair to put them out of business when the federal agency admits that the cause of the sea lion decline is still uncertain.

Gov. Sean Parnell and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski also spoke, urging a longer review of the proposed closure. The council is expected to decide today what to recommend.

Many fishermen and seafood companies urged the council to support a counterproposal devised by the fishermen that would reduce their fishing in the central and western Aleutians but not end it.

Matt Doherty of United States Seafoods, with a fleet of seven fishing vessels in the Aleutians, said the federal proposal harms fishermen, Adak residents and the companies that rely on the Atka mackerel and Pacific cod catches.

"People are important too. Sea lions are important. Let's get the balance right," he said.