Alaska Seafood Cooperative Files Suit Against National Marine Fisheries Service

Anne Hillman, KUCB – Unalaska

Earlier this week the Alaska Seafood Cooperative and other seafood organizations filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service to block the new rules aimed at protecting the far western stock of the endangered Steller sea lions. The rule, which went into effect on Jan. 1, closes area 543 in the western area of the Aleutians to fishing for Atka Mackrel and Pacific Cod.

Seven of Alaska Seafood Cooperative’s ships fish in area 543 and they represent about 90 percent of the area’s Atka Mackrel quota. Their attorney, Linda Larson, says the co-op does not think the new regulation is justified.

The population of Steller sea lions is increasing in other areas of the state.

NMFS itself estimates that communities and companies involved in the affected fisheries could lose between $44 and $60 million per year because of the fishery closure. Though the agency cannot comment on pending litigation, a spokesperson says the rule was pushed forward and put into place by Jan. 1, despite objections from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, because NMFS had to be in compliance with the Endangered Species Act. According to that legislation, NMFS is required to manage the groundfish fisheries in such a way as to not cause jeopardy or adverse modifications to the critical habitat of the endangered sea lions. In this case it meant protecting the vital food source for the western stock of marine mammals.

Fishing for Atka Mackrel and Pacific Cod typically starts in late January but will not this season. Larson says that they are trying to expedite the case and have it heard by the same judge who will review a similar suit made by the state of Alaska against the regulation in December. The judge will review the documents that NMFS had before them when they made their decision and will read briefs and arguments filed by both sides. The case should take a few months to go through the system if expedited. Larson says they have not decided whether or not to file an injunction to try to fish this season.

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