By Thea Card
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is pushing a new rule for ground fish fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands management area that will protect Steller sea lions.
NOAA’s newly released publication says the intent of the rule is to “protect the endangered western distinct population segment of Steller sea lions and its critical habitat, as required under the Endangered Species Act.” The publication also says there is a concern to prevent a harmful economic impact of the fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands areas.
Western Steller sea lions are considered an endangered species. They survive on Atka mackerel, Pacific cod and Pollock and this rule would require a way for fishermen to minimize depletion in the areas where sea lions eat.
Assistant Regional Administrator of NOAA Glen Merrill says there were a series of events and issues that led to this rule.
“The key issue is that there is litigations several years ago in which a court held that our current Steller sea lion protection measures were adequate however we could have done a better job providing the public an opportunity for comment during what we call the NEPA process, which is sort of the analytical process. The proposed rule that just came out is sort of the result of that process.”
Merrill says there was an intense study conducted to see if there was a connection between fisheries and the declining sea lion population. He says the study found that fishing isn’t the active cause and there can be some relief for active fishermen by ending some restrictions.
Although the sea lions are endangered on the western side of Alaska, Merrill says those on the eastern side of the state are doing well.
“Where they are doing particularly well is in the eastern gulf of Alaska. Until very recently that segment of the Steller sea lion population was considered to be threatened under the Endangered Species Act. We’ve actually de-listed that portion of the Steller sea lion population which is one of the few times that a species has come off the endangered species list.”
Merrill says this rule will place a limitation on the amount of catch in certain areas-- specifically at near shore areas. He says there is a concern of competition between the fisheries and the sea lions.
“At its simplest what our proposed rule would do is release some restrictions in the Aleutian Islands particularly in the central and western Aleutian Islands which is where we have the most restrictive management and we are relieving those restrictions based on new scientific information that suggests that we’re able to provide a little bit more opportunity to relief fishing in those areas without harming Steller sea lions.”
The end of 2014 will see the implementation of the rule. There is an open comment period open now until August 15th in which the public can offer their opinion and thoughts that will help influence NOAA’s decision. For more information visit NOAA’s website or submit a comment on the proposed rule at www.regulations.gov.