National Marine Fisheries Service Releases Draft of Opinion of Steller Sea Lion Population

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

After many delays – and with much anticipation from the fishing industry – the National Marine Fisheries Service just released its draft biological opinion on Alaska’s Steller Sea Lion population. The draft clocks in at over 800 pages of text, charts and graphs, and it examines the effect of commercial fishing on this protected species. It also makes some recommendations that could limit fishing in a portion of the Aleutians.

The western stock of sea lions was listed as endangered in 1990, and every year NOAA scientists do surveys of the marine mammals to figure out how many are surviving and how many are breeding. And through most of the Aleutians, the numbers have stabilized. Except for out at the

western tip. There, the adult population has declined almost by half in the past decade. It’s this region that NMFS wants to target.

NMFS says that while the population is influenced by a number of factors, commercial fishing does have an impact on Steller Sea Lions and it negatively affects their habitat. John Warrenchuk is a scientist with the non-profit conservation group Oceana. He agrees with NMFS’s assessment that competition for food is a serious problem for the sea lions.

And so NMFS is recommending placing some restrictions on fisheries in the Western Aleutians. The draft calls for the closure the Atka Mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries out near Attu, where the Steller Sea Lion population is most vulnerable. There would also be some limits on the ground fish fishery near the Andreanof Islands, but there restrictions wouldn’t be as extreme.

Dave Benton, head of the Marine Conservation Alliance, a fishery management organization, says that he’s not sure these closures would necessarily be warranted.

He also says he’s worried that NMFS is moving too quickly with the proposal.

Meanwhile, Warrenchuk has his own reservations about the direction of the plan – but for different reasons.

NMFS will be accepting public comment on the draft plan until August 27. The final draft of the biological opinion on Steller Sea Lions is scheduled to be released in January.

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