Feds give go-ahead to new Steller sea lion management

AP Photo/Lowell Fritz/NOAA Fisheries

Fishers targeting Atka mackerel, Pacific cod and pollock in the western Aleutians will likely have additional harvest opportunity next year.

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced April 2 that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s preferred management measures to protect the western distinct population segment of Steller sea lions in the western Aleutian Islands would not cause jeopardy or adverse modification to the sea lion habitat.

Jeopardy or adverse modification, also known as JAM, are terms from the Endangered Species Act, and no federal action, such as allowing commercial fishing, can be taken that could result in such impacts.

The council selected the less restrictive management measures in 2013, and has been waiting for NMFS to form an opinion on whether or not they would cause JAM.

The determination is based on a new biological opinion, or BiOP, updating the previous version from 2010, that now incorporates additional information about how commercial fisheries compete with Steller sea lions for food.

The council’s preferred management measures would maintain some closures around rookeries and haulouts, but generally allow more fishing opportunity in the Aleutians than is currently available.

For Atka mackerel, the total allowable catch, or TAC, would be limited to a certain proportion of the acceptable biological catch, or ABC, and apportioned equally between the winter and summer/fall seasons, with seasonal rollover of unused harvest allowed outside of the critical habitat areas.

The Bering Sea subarea of Area 541 — the farthest east of the three protected areas, roughly between Adak and Atka — however, would be closed to directed fishing.

No catch or participation limits would be implemented in Areas 542 and 541 beyond the critical habitat and rookery closures for Pacific cod fishers. In Area 543, the farthest west region of the Aleutians, there would also be a lesser catch limit based on abundance.

The major pollock changes would allow the Aleut Corp. to fish its pollock quota in Areas 541, 542 and 543.

That means 2015 could be the first time the Aleut Corp. will be able to fish the pollock quota it received through a line item in the 2004 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

In the JAM announcement, the agency said that the proposed changes will relieve roughly two-thirds of the economic burden imposed on fishermen from the 2011 regulations, which severely restricted fishing for pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel in the western Aleutians. Area 543, which is nearly half the size of Texas, was completely closed to cod and mackerel fishing under the rules implemented in 2011.

“Finding a way to protect endangered sea lions while minimizing costs to the fishing industry is a real challenge,” said Jim Balsiger, NOAA Fisheries Alaska regional administrator. “I applaud the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and stakeholders for recommending a new suite of measures that effectively balances those two objectives.”

NMFS implemented the 2011 restrictions to protect food sources for the sea lions, based on an environmental assessment that relied on the 2010 BiOp, but a federal judge found that action violated the National Environmental Policy Act because the agency did not support the measures with a full environmental impact statement, or EIS. Judge Timothy Burgess, however, temporarily uphold the protections while the agency completed the EIS.

The court-ordered environmental impact statement, or EIS, should now be completed before the August deadline extension.

Earlier this year, Burgess extended the timeline for the new EIS to August to enable the agency to work with the council and stakeholders on developing new protections if it had determined that the council’s preferred fishery management measures would result in JAM.

The 2010 biological opinion has since been reviewed by multiple entities, many of which were critical of its findings.

According to the NMFS announcement, the agency conducted several new analyses in response to the reviews, and those were incorporated into the new BiOp.

The new opinion notes changes to the Aleutian Islands fisheries, and includes new data, along with the new analyses. Together, the information helps “give the agency a better picture of the potential for commercial fisheries to compete with sea lions for Pacific cod, Atka mackerel and pollock,” according to the release.

The council previously decided to split the total allowable catch for Pacific cod between the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, which went into affect in 2014. That results in less allowable Pacific cod harvest in the Aleutians. The other changes proposed would limit the amount, timing and location of harvests of the three major species in the Steller sea lion critical habitat area.

Alaska’s congressional delegation responded positively to the news that NMFS had revised its biological opinion.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a formal statement: “It is critical that policies that do concrete and immediate economic harm to Alaskans be based on science and rigorous analysis, and I would like to thank NOAA for listening to the Center of Independent Experts in issuing the new biological opinion.”

Rep. Don Young said in his statement: “This is good news. We may get a lot of our fishermen and a lot of our villages back in the taking of fish from the Western Aleutians, and to me I’m excited about that. This goes to show you that the government doesn’t know everything and I’m glad we were able to have some input on the decision.”

Not everyone, however, supported the announcement. In a statement, Oceana’s Deputy Vice President Susan Murray questioned it.

“Today’s decision is a clear statement from the National Marine Fisheries Service that large-scale industrial fishing is more important than stewardship, science, and sustainable fisheries,” Murray said in a formal statement. “The conclusion is inconsistent with decades of scientific analysis, court decisions, and the government’s commitment to ecosystem-based management. Oceana has supported the government, including in court, as it has taken necessary steps to protect Steller sea lions. We cannot and will not support today’s unwise decision.”

04/17/2014 - 12:37pm