But conservationists recoiled when they realized that NMFS delegated the real decisions about the future of the endangered marine mammal to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), a political council dominated by the trawl industry. The NPFMC is scheduled to take up the issue on Wednesday (December 9th) in Anchorage.
"They got close to the end zone by declaring that the massive trawl fisheries jeopardize sea lions, but then punted on management actions," said Heather Weiner, a policy analyst at Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, one of two non-profit environmental law firms suing to protect the sea lions. According to the Endangered Species Act, if NMFS' biological opinion declares that the groundfish fishery is "likely to jeopardize the continued existence" of the Steller sea lion, then NMFS must take action to prevent further damage to the species and begin its recovery.
In meetings and in a letter to Commerce Secretary Daley, Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK), Frank Murkowski (R-AK), Slade Gorton (R-WA), and Congressman Don Young (R-AK) demanded that the final decisions about the sea lions' future be handed to the NPFMC. Conservationists believe this political pressure influenced today's announcement.
"The trawl fleet has brought intense political pressure on the agency to allow continued overexploitation of the North Pacific, despite the impacts to sea lions, harbor seals, and to the long-term health of the fisheries," said Doug Ruley, an Earthjustice attorney in Alaska. "The Agency and the Council must take aggresive measures for the future of the North Pacific ecosystem," Ruley explained.
The Steller sea lion is one of many ocean predators losing the race with industrial fisheries in the North Pacific ocean. Last April, on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Trustees for Alaska filed a lawsuit in federal court requested that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) take action to prevent the collapse of the North Pacific ecosystem.
Conservationists urged NMFS to act aggressively to halt damage to sea lions and the Bering Sea ecosystem by:
1. prohibiting trawling in all critical habitat surrounding sea lion rookeries and haulouts;
2. dramatically reducing the catches of pollock, Atka mackerel, and other groundfish essential for sea lion survival in all other sea lion critical habitat including at-sea foraging areas;
3. reducing the overall catches of pollock and other groundfish, particularly the catches of spawning pollock; and
4. spreading the remaining catch over the entire year and over broader areas of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, rather than allowing the catch to be concentrated as it is now.