NMFS nears new Steller sea lion restrictions

Group of eastern Steller sea lions, taken during research conducted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2007. (Photo by Jamie King/ADFG)

Group of eastern Steller sea lions, taken during research conducted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2007. (Photo by Jamie King/ADFG)

The new year will likely bring new fisheries to the western Aleutian Islands, now that the National Marine Fisheries Service has issued its final report on the way commercial fishing affects an endangered population of Steller sea lions.

The agency came out in favor of allowing more fishing in its environmental impact statement, or EIS, on Friday morning.

This is a major move for NMFS. As recently as 2011, the agency shut down fishing grounds in the Bering Sea and Aleutians. Biologists didn’t want the Steller sea lions to have to compete with fishermen for pollock, Atka mackerel, and Pacific Cod.

But the fishing industry argued that there wasn’t enough scientific proof that commercial harvests were putting pressure on the endangered species.

The issue went to court, and a federal judge ordered NMFS to go back to the drawing board. The agency was required to come up with this new environmental impact statement, which looks at the scientific and economic implications of different protection plans.

Last year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council told biologists they preferred an option that would relax some bans on commercial fishing. It would allow a small pollock harvest near Adak, for instance.

NMFS has been studying that plan ever since. The agency ruled that more fishing — at certain times of year, in certain areas — is not likely to jeopardize sea lions.

Now, NMFS will start turning that into a federal regulation. It could be ready by January 1, 2015.

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