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Scientists question decision to restrict fishing to help endangered sea lions

A federal biological opinion to restrict multi-million dollar commercial mackerel and cod fisheries in the western Aleutian Islands to protect sea lions and their habitat has been challenged by a panel of independent reviewers.

The three reviewers with the Center for International Experts were contracted by the National Marine Fisheries Service to review the November 2010 decision. They concluded the biological opinion failed to support its conclusion that continued commercial fishing for Pacific cod, Alaska pollock, and Atka mackerel would jeopardize the survival or adversely modify critical habitat of the western population of Steller sea lions.

The population of these Steller sea lions was listed as endangered in 1997 and the National Marine Fisheries Service said the population had in fact sharply declined since the early 1970s. Because of the biological opinion -- and after much testimony – the fisheries service decided to restrict commercial mackerel and cod fisheries in the western Aleutians.

Fishermen have estimated annual losses due to these restrictions at about $40 million.

Reviewers Don Bowen, of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Brent Steward of San Diego, Calif., and Kevin Stokes of Wellington, New Zealand, found the biological opinion flawed.

“There is no direct evidence that by removing fish, these fisheries compete with Steller sea lions in the central and western Aleutians and elsewhere,” said Bowen, who is with the Population Ecology Division of Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, in Nova Scotia.

“Harvest rates for Atka mackerel are too low and the fraction of the Pacific cod stock in these areas is too small for a fishery on these species to result in nutritional stress,” he said.

More information on the review is here.