Future brightens for pollock, cod

Alaska’s big offshore groundfish industry has seen a dramatic turnabout in its fortunes.

Stellar Research indicates diet only piece of puzzleResults are coming from millions of dollars in new federal funds flowing into research on Steller sea lions.

Sea lion populations in Western Alaska have declined 80 percent in the last 40 years, from 180,000 animals in the 1960s to less than 30,000 now.

Scientists have been unable to establish the reason for the decline, and the official listing of this western stock under the Endangered Species Act has threatened Alaska’s $1 billion groundfish industry.

"We now know that the causes of the decline in the western Steller sea lion populations are much more complex than what was originally believed, which was some problem in their diets," said Heather McCarty, a Juneau-based fisheries consultant who helps coordinate research.

Previously, the National Marine Fisheries Service, working without any funding for new sea lion research, had to rely on spotty and outdated research that pointed to a dietary problem, McCarty said.

The diet argument provided ammunition for environmental groups in their quest to reduce or shut down the offshore fishing industry. The argument was that fishing for pollock, cod and other species off Alaska’s coasts imperiled the sea lions’ food supply.

Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens got additional time for NMFS to study the sea lion decline, with $40 million in emergency funding for research last year and an additional $40 million this year.

The $80 million in total funding has produced a broad-based research effort that includes not only federal scientists but researchers from the University of British Columbia, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

More than 150 different study efforts are now under way on why sea lion populations have crashed. The research involves 155 principal investigators and 300 to 400 research assistants.

Stephanie Madsen, Alaska director for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, said one result of Stevens’ efforts is that national fisheries agency scientists were given additional time to analyze satellite telemetry data gathered previously.

The data showed that young sea lions, who are the most in peril, forage for food within a few miles of rookeries and haul-out areas, Madsen said. Older sea lions, who are less imperiled, swim farther out.

Based on that information, gathered by both federal and state scientists, the federal agency was able to focus its restrictions on areas near the rookeries and haul-out areas, Madsen said.

This meant that fishing could continue in waters farther offshore without placing the young sea lions in peril, she said. The result was that restricted no-fishing areas were limited to three miles around coastal areas rather than 20 miles.

Significant new information also came from the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova. Scientists there discovered, after studies of nocturnal foraging activity, that sea lions prefer fish like herring and eat pollock and cod only when nothing else is available.

That finding directly contradicted the argument that fishing for pollock and cod disrupted a major source of food for Steller sea lions.

This result was reinforced by a detailed analysis of available scientific information on sea lions that was released by the state of Alaska last August, McCarty said.

A major conclusion by state biologists is that the Stellers’ decline is not just food-related but is caused by several factors, including predation by killer whales, she said.

Fishermen all along had pointed to killer whales as a problem for young sea lions, but until recently government scientists had not given killer whales much thought.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

A year ago fishermen who harvested pollock and cod in federally managed waters off Alaska’s coast seemed on the endangered species list, along with Steller sea lions.

This year, as boats head back to the fishing grounds for the start of 2002 fishing, Lady Luck is smiling.

The threats that environmental lawsuits over the sea lions could shut down offshore fishing seem to have receded.

Market conditions seem in reasonable shape too, according to Frank Kelty, resource specialist with the city of Unalaska. Harvests are up to, Kelty said.

Russia is reducing harvests of pollock and cod off the Russian Far East in an effort to curb overfishing, Kelty said, and that has tightened supply and lifted prices for surimi, a seafood product made from pollock.

In the Bering Sea, where the bulk of the pollock and cod are caught, the allowable harvest is up from last year because of healthy fish stocks.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has set the Bering Sea 2002 pollock harvest at 1.5 million metric tons, up from 1.4 million in 2000. About 135 large vessels are in this fishery, as well as smaller boats serving eight large shore plants.

Better times won’t be felt everywhere, however. In the Gulf of Alaska, pollock catches will be down 40 percent from 2001, from 96,000 tons last year to 58,000 tons this year because of the condition of the groundfish stocks.

Those stocks are recovering, however, and the Gulf of Alaska should experience better harvests in 2003 and 2004.

Meanwhile, the main pollock A fishing season begins Jan. 20, under the management plans being followed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for offshore fisheries.

Seattle U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly has set Jan. 18 as a deadline for parties in the sea lion lawsuit to notify the court of their intentions regarding a new fisheries management plan for groundfish developed by the NMFS.

Trevor McCabe, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, said his group expects the environmental plaintiffs in the lawsuit to contest the management plan. But McCabe said indications are the groups will not seek an injunction to stop the start of fishing Jan. 20.

A year ago things looked extremely bleak for the groundfish industry, which earns about $700 million per year in revenues.

Environmental groups led by Greenpeace had filed lawsuits charging that NMFS was not adequately protecting the Steller sea lions, which have experienced large drops in population.

The plaintiffs in the case urged a cutback in fishing to protect the sea lions, arguing that large-scale fishing was cutting into the food supply for the sea lions.

In response to the lawsuits, NMFS adopted in November 2000 a restrictive biological opinion on measures needed to protect the sea lions. The opinion recommended that large areas be closed to fishing for pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel.

Among other restrictions, management plans based on the opinion would have put 90 percent of coastal waters traditionally fished by the Kodiak fleet off-limits and would have imposed severe restrictions on fishing elsewhere along the Alaska Peninsula, Aleutians and Bering Sea.

Alaskans in the fishing business, and the state’s congressional delegation, argued the biological

opinion was based on inadequate science.

An amendment pushed through Congress by Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens gave the agency more time and also appropriated $40 million for additional sea lion research.

That gave NMFS more information about the sea lions, resulting in a revised biological opinion released earlier this year. It said the sea lions can be protected while allowing more fishing.

Revised management plans were developed by a task force established by the North Pacific council, based on the new biological opinion. They allow for different types of management measures in each of the major fisheries areas, the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The new plans provide for closed areas around rookeries and other areas used by sea lions, together with seasonal restrictions and harvest apportionments.

01/21/2002 - 8:00pm