"NMFS has allowed industrial trawlers to suck huge volumes of fish from our oceans," said Doug Ruley, staff attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. "Will we watch the extinction of our ocean's top predators in Alaska before we say enough is enough?" The Legal Defense Fund and Trustees for Alaska filed the lawsuit today in the western district court of Washington state on behalf of the environmental groups.
The abundant waters of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska once teemed with one of the world's largest concentrations of sea lions, fur and harbor seals, and seabirds. Today, intensive industrial trawling in the North Pacific seas is depleting fish populations, harming habitat, and unnecessarily disrupting the ocean web of life. This industrial-scale fishing also takes food away from the ocean's top-of-the-food-chain predators, including the now-endangered Steller sea lion.
"What is happening to the Steller sea lion is an indication of damage to the ecosystem," noted Sue Sabella, Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace. "The Steller, other wildlife, the fishing industry, and local communities all depend on this ecosystem, which is being destroyed by over fishing."
Steller sea lion populations have plummeted in the last 30 years, while industrial trawling has skyrocketed. An 85% decline in sea lion and harbor seal populations in certain areas of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska has coincided closely with a doubling of the pollock, mackerel, and cod catches.
"Declining populations of these marine mammals and seabirds tells us a story about an ailing ecosystem. It's clear that NMFS is managing the North Pacific fisheries with only one goal in mind: maximizing the quantity of fish caught today with little thought of tomorrow or of other species," said Tanya Dobrzynski, Fisheries Coordinator for American Oceans Campaign.
The lawsuit takes NMFS to task for failing to take a comprehensive look at the impacts of commercial groundfish fisheries in Alaska since 1981, despite the dramatic downward changes in the ecosystem.
The lawsuit also charges that NMFS is failing to protect the top predator in this ecosystem -- the endangered Steller sea lion -- and its critical habitat from overfishing, as required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).