Federal regulators on Monday proposed new commercial fishing restrictions in the Aleutians to combat a steep decline of Steller sea lions in the western and central portion of the island chain.
The federal National Marine Fisheries Service proposes to close all commercial fishing for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in federal waters near Attu, the farthest island in the Aleutian chain. The agency is also proposing restrictions but not an outright ban on commercial fishing for mackerel and cod in the central Aleutians, west of Dutch Harbor.
The proposed restrictions, detailed in a 836-page draft biological opinion published Monday, cover the remote fishing grounds stretching between Dutch Harbor and the Russian border.
Fishing groups worry that the agency's recommendations are the end of mackerel and cod fishing in the Aleutians, worth tens of millions of dollars to fishermen. Environmentalists are worried that the fisheries service's proposal is inadequate to reverse the sea lion decline.
"It closes 90 percent of the historic fishing grounds (in the Aleutians) to cod and more so to mackerel," said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, a Seattle-based trade group that represents a portion of the trawl fleet in the Aleutians, the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.
But one environmental group said Monday that the agency didn't go far enough. The sea lion decline is serious enough that the fisheries service should use its authority to restrict fishing set to begin this fall rather than waiting until next year, according to Oceana, a marine conservation group.
If the current fishery management in the Aleutians isn't working for sea lions, the agency is obligated to take immediate action, said Mike LeVine, a Juneau attorney for Oceana.
The entire western population of sea lions in waters off Alaska's coast -- extending from a point near Yakutat to Russia -- is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Since the 1990s, federal regulators have restricted fishing in the Aleutians and the Gulf to protect the animals. Pollock fishing, for example, has been mostly eliminated in the Aleutians.
Many fishermen dispute that their industry is responsible for the sea lion decline.
As the fishing has been limited, the sea lion population has grown -- by 12 percent between 2000 and 2008 throughout its entire range west of Yakutat. But that has come after a population decline of nearly 90 percent since the 1950s, according to the agency.
In its biological opinion filed Monday, the fisheries service said the closures are needed to reduce competition between fishermen and sea lions seeking food.
"Even though factors other than fishing also affect the sea lion population, under the Endangered Species Act we are required to ensure that the actions our agency takes to authorize fisheries do not jeopardize" the animals, said Jim Balsiger, the agency's regional administrator.
Sea lions could disappear from the western and central Aleutians within several decades at their current rate of decline, said Doug Mecum, the agency's regional supervisor.
In the western Aleutians, the adult and juvenile sea lion population decreased 45 percent between 2000 and 2008. In the same time period, the sea lion population in the central Aleutians declined 11 percent. Fishermen mainly target mackerel and cod in those areas -- a main source of food for sea lions.
MOVING THE FLEETS
The fleets that would face restrictions under the fisheries service proposal include trawl, catcher-processor and freezer/longline boats.
The annual value of the fish caught in the affected area is roughly $30 million to fishermen, while the wholesale value is probably three times that amount, Mecum estimated.
He said the agency expects that the proposed measures would lead to sea lion population increases within four to five years.
Paine of United Catcher Boats said the proposal could force many of the large fishing vessels that target cod in the Aleutians to move to the Bering Sea, creating more competition for the same amount of fish in those waters. Fishing vessels targeting mackerel wouldn't have that option, because that species is concentrated in the Aleutians, he said.
The fisheries service is accepting public comments on the biological opinion until Aug. 27. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, an advisory group that weighs in on fishing rules in federal waters off Alaska, will host public meetings on the proposal in Anchorage from Aug. 16 to Aug. 20.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK