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Review questions science in federal plan to protect sea lions

Dan JolingAssociated Press

A panel of independent reviewers has concluded that the federal government's decision to restrict commercial fishing in Alaska's Aleutian Islands is not supported by sound science.

The reviewers say a biological opinion prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service two years ago does not support for the conclusion that continued fishing for Alaska pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel would jeopardize sea lions or harm their critical habitat.

The western population of Steller sea lions was listed as endangered in 1997. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, their numbers fell sharply from 250,000 in the early 1970s to 49,000 in 2008.

Over the objections of the state of Alaska and commercial fishing companies, the agency in late 2010 announced that commercial mackerel and cod fisheries in the western Aleutians would be restricted. However, the agency also contracted with the Center for Independent Experts, a program designed to review of agency science, to look over its conclusions.

A three-scientist panel concluded this week that the science was flawed.

Panel member Brent S. Stewart, a senior research scientist at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute in San Diego, concluded that the biological opinion equated "language of possibility" with "language of substantial chance" -- confusing what might be with what was likely.

"Speculative and hypothetical suggestions for jeopardy and adverse modification do not, I think, meet the standard established by the Endangered Species Act," he wrote.

Commercial fishing causing nutritional stress to sea lions was one hypothesis put forward for sea lion decline. Another was killer whale predation, Stewart said.

"There has been no causal evidentiary support for any of them," he said.

NMFS spokeswoman Julie Speegle said the conclusions submitted by Stewart, Don Bowen of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia, and Kevin Stokes of Wellington, New Zealand, will be closely reviewed.

"We are committed to making sure that our decisions and analyses are based on the best available scientific information," she said by email. "We are reviewing the report carefully and will determine whether any follow-up actions are warranted."

State of Alaska attorneys in an unsuccessful court case argued against fishing restrictions and said the population of western Steller sea lions was growing 1 percent to 1.5 percent annually. Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation, said Friday the independent review supports the state challenge to the fishing restrictions.

"Their reviews confirmed our assessment of the foundational science," he said by email.

A federal judge in January said the agency in general followed proper procedures as it restricted commercial fishing of Atka mackerel and Pacific cod. However, U.S. District Judge Tim Burgess also ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to perform additional environmental work, with the chance for public comment, for its rules.

Associated Press