Changes in Steller Sea Lion Protections Challenged
A National Marine Fisheries Service decision to scale back protections for western Steller sea lions and allow more directed fishing in the Aleutians for pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel is being challenged in US District Court in Anchorage.
Oceana and Greenpeace are challenging the NMFS decision, which allows for pollock fishing within critical habitat in the Aleutian Islands for the first time since the directed pollock fishery was closed there in 1999.
In its final rule, announced on Nov. 24, federal fisheries officials acknowledged that Steller sea lions found primarily west of 144 degrees W longitude in Alaska are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and that pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel are their primary prey, but said these fish also provide income for fishermen and communities of the Aleutian Islands.
According to NMFS, the protection measures in the final rule do address congressional mandates to protect recovery of these Steller sea lions, while providing for sustainable fisheries, as required under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
The final rule requires dispersing fishing efforts in both space and time to ensure that there is an abundant food source for the Steller sea lions, and also for removing some critical habitat closures in three fishing areas.
The NMFS decision notes that NMFS will require enhanced vessel monitoring system requirements, in addition to existing monitoring, to track compliance with fishery closure areas implemented under the Steller sea lion protection measures.
The controversial decision focuses on the issue of who has the greater right to the pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel, upon which the commercial fishermen depend for profit and the Steller sea lions for nutrition.
The NMFS decision came on a heels of a series of court actions, including one in which the U.S. District Court in Alaska found that NMFS complied with all substantive requirements in preparing the 2010 biological opinion and implementing the accompanying sea lion protection measures.
The court also ordered NMFS to prepare an environmental impact statement for the interim Final Rule, and in that EIS NMFS evaluated environmental impacts of five alternative sets of Steller sea lion protection measures for the western and central Aleutian Islands.
The one NMFS chose came from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
It allowed for pollock fishing within critical habitat in the Aleutian Islands, and for substantially more directed fishing for both Atka mackerel and Pacific cod within and adjacent to critical habitat as compared to the Interim Final Rule. Alternative 5 also opened critical habitat in Areas 541 and 542 to directed fishing for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in areas that were off limits under the 2010 biological opinion and Interim Final rule.
In a record of decision issued in November, NMFS said it concluded that Alternative 5 "provides reasonable and practical means to avoid, minimize or compensate for environmental harm from the fisheries."
NMFS' rational for the decision was that Alternative 5 minimized potential impact of groundfish fisheries on Steller sea lion prey by spatially and temporally controlling harvest of Atka mackerel, Pacific cod and pollock. NMFS also said that Alternative 5 prohibits directed fishing for these fish near Steller sea lion haulouts and rookeries and within foraging areas.
The complete decision is online at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/sslpm/eis/eisrod1114.pdf.
The lawsuit asks the court to enter a declaratory judgment that NMFS is in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the National Environmental Policy Act and urges the court to vacate the 2014 biological opinion.