Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Problems for Aleutian Island Sea Lions

From the SeattleTimes:

The population of Steller's sea lions is declining so rapidly in Alaska's Aleutian Islands that the Obama administration is calling for the emergency closure of commercial mackerel and cod fishing there. The fishing industry, largely based in Seattle, is alarmed and worried such measures could eventually lead to restrictions on parts of the $1 billion-a-year pollock catch in the nearby Bering Sea.

Endangered Steller's sea lions are faring so poorly at the tip of Alaska's Aleutian Islands that the Obama administration is calling for emergency commercial fishing closures for two prominent species: Atka mackerel and Pacific cod.

The proposed shutdown would hit a small, important segment of Alaska's largely Seattle-based fishing industry.

But it's also the latest evidence that sea lions have become a proxy in a simmering war over fishing in Alaska. Both the industry and environmentalists are eyeing the future of the $1 billion-a-year pollock industry in the nearby Bering Sea, a fishery that supplies half the country's catch of fish.

The fishing industry Monday expressed alarm at the severity and swiftness of the administration's proposal, which came in response to a 45 percent drop since 2000 in the western Aleutians' sea- lion population.

The National Marine Fisheries Service wants the closures and other restrictions to take effect early next year.

"What they've put on the table today is a head shot for us," said Dave Wood, counsel for United States Seafood in South Seattle.

The mackerel and cod catches in the western Aleutians bring fishermen about $60 million a year wholesale.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, insist the administration isn't doing enough to curb the use of massive factory trawlers, which drag giant nets through the water and sometimes hop along the seafloor.

"We're still trawling way too much in too many places," said Mike LeVine, counsel for the environmental group Oceana in Alaska. "And sea lions are telling us that trawling and fishing are unbalancing the whole system."

Steller's sea lions for decades were killed by hunters and fishermen and accidentally entangled in nets, their numbers declining in some places by nearly 90 percent since the 1960s.

Decades after those practices stopped, some populations still are struggling to recover. One of the most important of those is the western Aleutians.

Fisheries scientists acknowledged they still can't say with certainty what's causing the decline, but argued that competition for food in some areas is a factor.

No comments: