FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Gordon Helm
Proposes Measures to Protect Steller Sea Lions and
Announces Plans to Work with Fishing Industry to Minimize Economic Impact
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service today released a biological opinion that examines the effects of Alaska's groundfish fisheries on Steller sea lions and other endangered species. The agency has concluded that while many factors, such as changing ocean environment, have contributed to the 4.7 percent average annual decline of the western population of sea lions, competition with fisheries that target their most important food sources is a significant factor in their decline. To reduce the impact of fishing on the sea lions, the agency has proposed a new approach to the management of fishing in the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and along the Aleutian Islands. NOAA Fisheries also has outlined its plans to work with fishermen, the states of Alaska and Washington, as well as other stakeholders, to help minimize the impacts of the new rules on the fishing industry and to develop options for mitigation.
A NOAA Fisheries team, composed of scientists, managers, and attorneys, with advice from independent experts, developed the biological opinion, which concluded that continued fishing for groundfish, including pollock, Atka mackerel and Pacific cod, under the agency's existing rules is likely to jeopardize the western population of Steller sea lions and adversely affect its critical habitat. In the biological opinion, NOAA Fisheries has included a Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA) that modifies the management plan for the groundfish stocks to limit competition between fishing vessels and the sea lions.
Since August 8th of this year, fishing grounds within the sea lions' "critical habitat" have been closed to trawl fishing by federal court order. NOAA Fisheries' leadership today expressed optimism that its new biological opinion and management measures will meet the high expectations of the court, and that the agency will be able to open the fishery under these measures.
"The good news is that we now have a biological road map that will give the courts and us assurance that fishing can resume in many areas currently closed, without further risk to the sea lions," said NOAA Fisheries Director Penny Dalton.
In the RPA, scientists recommend measures that must be included in management regulations: 1) protecting Steller sea lion critical habitat through closure of fishing areas; 2) spreading out the fishing through seasonal harvest limits; 3) reducing the harvest of the sea lion's primary food supply in critical habitat areas; and 4) monitoring the effectiveness of these measures to protect Steller sea lions.
The RPA establishes a new rule that reduces the annual percentage harvest of pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel when they are at low abundance levels. Competition between the sea lions and fishing vessels will be further reduced by a plan that spreads the total allowable catch inside the sea lions' critical habitat across four seasons, while dividing the year into two seasons outside critical habitat. In addition to time adjustments, the annual harvest will be apportioned to specific geographic management areas to avoid concentrated fishing in small areas. Fishing vessel disturbance to Steller sea lions will be minimized by the closure to vessels of some portions of critical habitat foraging areas.
"Our responsibility under the Endangered Species Act is to ensure that fishing practices do not put this population of Steller sea lions or other ESA-listed species in jeopardy of extinction," said Don Knowles, director of NOAA Fisheries' Protected Resources Office, who issued the biological opinion on behalf of the agency.
As part of the comprehensive biological opinion, agency and independent consultants assessed effects of the groundfish fisheries on 22 listed species. The opinion concludes that effects of the fishery management plans for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of blue whales, bowhead whales, fin whales, humpback whales, right whales, sei whales, sperm whales, the eastern population of Steller sea lions, twelve populations of salmon and steelhead, or leatherback turtles.
Dalton also described her agency's plans to work with affected fishermen and communities to assure continual improvement in the science underlying the regulation of the fishery, and to minimize the potential economic impact from the new protective measures.
NOAA Fisheries plans to launch a scientific and public review of its biological opinion. The agency will also develop a monitoring program to assess the effectiveness of its new management measures in protecting the sea lions' food supply. Finally, NOAA Fisheries plans to establish a dedicated Steller sea lion team to work closely with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the states.
"We recognize that healthy and productive fisheries provide thousands of jobs in Alaska and Washington state," said Dalton. "We will be looking for every opportunity to minimize any adverse economic impacts associated with our new measures, and we are willing to revise our biological opinion and regulations in light of new scientific information as early as the 2002 fishing season."
"We need to ensure that our regulations reflect real-world' fishery conditions and we will be looking for better ways to communicate with the public, said Dalton.
Accordingly, the agency will be presenting a detailed review of the opinion and its proposed new measures to next week's meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage, Alaska. During that meeting, the agency will also conduct briefing workshops for any interested participants. Similar opportunities for public interaction will be afforded in the near future in Washington State.
Specific details of the RPA, and the complete text of the comprehensive biological opinion can be viewed at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov or a copy can be requested by writing NOAA Fisheries' Protected Resources Division, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668 or by calling (907) 586-7235. The biological opinion and the RPA will be reviewed next week during the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. The meeting is open to the public and will be held December 4th through the 12th. For more information, view the Council's Web site at: http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm.
NOAA Fisheries conducts scientific research and provides
services and products to support domestic and international fisheries
management, fisheries development, trade and industry assistance,
enforcement, and protected species and habitat conservation programs.