By Ramona Young-Ggrindle
WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service announced new measures to protect endangered Steller sea lions in Alaska, which reduce some protections already in place. The new regulations are to protect the sea lions under the Endangered Species Act, while also minimizing the economic impact on the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fisheries, according to the rule published Tuesday.
Oceana, an environmental group that has championed the cause of the sea lions, decried the new measures as a reversal of the agency's previous determination that reducing fishery catches and closing fishing areas was required to protect the sea lions. "The Fisheries Service has prioritized large-scale industrial fishing above the health of our oceans. This new rule will allow factory trawlers to take millions of fish away from the areas where Steller sea lions need to feed on them the most. Their decision is inconsistent with decades of scientific analysis," Jon Warrenchuk, Oceana's Senior Scientist, was quoted as saying in the group's response to the final rule.
The NMFS listed the western distinct population of Steller sea lions in Alaska as endangered in 1997 due to a 75 percent population decline between 1976 and 1990. In 2010, the agency implemented protection measures that limited the harvest of Atka mackerel and Pacific cod, two of the sea lions' most important prey species.
The state of Alaska, the Alaska Seafood Cooperative and the Freezer Longline Coalition filed suit in response to the 2010 fishing restrictions, and the new protection measures are the agency's attempt to balance its conflicting mandates of protecting an endangered species while providing for sustainable fisheries.
The new measures disperse fishing over a larger area and a longer time frame to prevent localized depletion, while also removing some of the 2010 fishing restrictions. The measures remove some of the previous critical habitat closures, but also require increased vessel monitoring.
The agency maintains that many of the 2010 restrictions are no longer necessary due to new information and evaluation.
Oceana noted that even though two court opinions upheld the 2010 protections, the agency "has devised a new rule to allow those factory trawlers and freezer-longliners to remove over 30 million pounds of fish that are Steller sea lion prey in the region where the sea lions are faring the worst."
The final rule is effective Dec. 26.