Alaska Senators Disappointed with Steller Sea Lion Decision

Press Release

New restrictions on fishing in the western Aleutians will cost Alaska jobs and exports without clear indication that it will benefit the environment, U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski said today.

Begich and Murkowski responded to the release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the final interim biological opinion on the endangered Steller sea lion which will require closure of massive areas of productive fishing grounds in the western Aleutians that may cut in half the $60 million annual Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries.

"These fisheries provide hundreds of jobs and a valuable export product, things we need as our nation struggles out of the recession," Begich said. "This measure will close fisheries in the western Aleutians, even in waters outside of the sea lions' critical habitat, reducing the catch, laying off fishermen and may force some companies out of business. It's a disaster for the fishing industry and comes even though the latest stock assessment shows a significant increase in the forage species targeted by sea lions."

"I am extremely disappointed that NOAA chose to go this route," Murkowski said. "They rejected most of the recommendations of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council on mitigation measures. I believe the motion found middle ground between industry and agency proposals and struck a good balance in protecting Steller Sea Lions and minimizing some of the most severe fishing restrictions. I understand the constraints of the Endangered Species Act, but I do not see the benefits of this action."

The restrictions were prompted by evidence of a continuing decline in Steller sea lion populations in the western Aleutians, even while stocks in the eastern Aleutians and Gulf of Alaska are rebounding. NOAA has responsibility for protecting marine mammals like sea lions and, through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, managing commercial fishing, and the agency recently issued a draft biological opinion stating catches of mackerel and cod in the western Aleutians were causing nutritional stress and decreased reproduction in the sea lion population.

In response to the decline, NOAA and the fishery management council both proposed plans to cut back fishing, with NOAA's proposed plan restricting fishing more broadly, including shutting down fishing for the two species in the entire western Aleutians. In his final interim rule, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke largely decided to implement NOAA's proposed approach, instead of the less restrictive suggestions of the fishery management council, although some concessions were made to allow additional fishing opportunities in the central Aleutians.

"I am disappointed the recommendations of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which were better supported by the science and more carefully balanced the needs of the fishery and the sea lion populations, were not followed here," Begich said. "I call on NOAA to use existing funding to ensure the science needed to better understand the relationship between sea lions and their prey is done quickly. I would also like to see a programmatic review of the Steller sea lion research program by a high level scientific institution such as the National Research Council to help evaluate the effectiveness of the program, identify data gaps, and refocus research to address specific scientific and management needs."

"Any federal action which causes a $30 million to $50 million annual reduction in revenue and significant loss of jobs must be seriously questioned," Murkowski said. "Given the devastating effect on the fishing industry, it is incumbent upon NOAA to prioritize and fund research to answer the substantial questions about the decline Steller Sea Lion population in the Western Aleutians. I am encouraged, however, that NOAA is supportive of a robust, transparent and independent peer review of its science."

The senators are particularly concerned as NOAA is finalizing a stock assessment of Atka mackerel that shows, despite commercial fishing, the population has increased 150 percent in recent years and may be at historically high levels. Begich and Murkowski believe the numbers undercut the argument that fishermen are taking too many fish and preventing sea lions from feeding successfully. The two noted Alaska has a proud history of careful, sustainable management of its ocean resources and the key to success has been not politicizing the science while respecting the council recommendations.