Oceana and Greenpeace, represented by Earthjustice, filed motions in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska in support of conservation measures implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the Steller sea lions. The measures restrict fishing by large bottom trawl vessels in certain areas of the western and central Aleutian Islands. These factory trawlers compete with sea lions for food and leave inadequate fish to support sea lion reproduction and recovery. The western stock of Steller sea lions has declined by almost ninety percent in waters with large-scale commercial fishing.
The conservation groups join the federal government in defending the regulations against legal attacks from the Seattle-based fishing industry and Alaskan state government, which have gone to court to have the protections overturned.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service plan should be implemented, even while we are convinced that more must be done to allow for recovery of the species,” said Oceana Pacific Director, Susan Murray. “The State and the Seattle-based head-and-gut fleet are using out-of-state lawyers to fight the law and the science rather than working toward a solution reached by Alaskans that furthers sustainable fisheries and supports vibrant communities.”
It has been 20 years since the Western distinct population segment of Steller sea lions was first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Seventeen years ago, critical habitat was designated, and 11 years ago management measures were put in place to reduce the catches of groundfish in Steller sea lions critical habitat. Unfortunately, the population’s decline has not been stopped in all places, and the population is not recovering overall. NMFS’s actions to close areas where the population continues to decline are based on scientific and legal mandates designed to balance the commercial take of fish with the needs of native wildlife.
“Fishing industry lobbyists are discarding the best available science so some of the most unsustainable fisheries in Alaska can continue with business as usual,” said John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA. “Unless we stop pretending that we can take as much fish as we like without any consequences, not only will Steller sea lions remain on the endangered list, but they will soon be joined by fur seals and many other species.”
The Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska regions support extensive commercial fisheries, important shipping channels, vibrant communities, and vital marine resources. In particular, the Aleutian Islands ecosystem is one of the most vibrant, dynamic, productive and rare ocean environments in the world. With over 450 species of fish, more than 260 species of birds that migrate from all seven continents, and 25 species of marine mammals, this rich and unique ocean environment is an international treasure.
“These regulations are a carefully balanced step toward managing our fisheries sustainably,” said Earthjustice attorney, Kate Glover. “To support healthy fisheries and fishing communities, we have to strike the right balance between protecting ecosystem needs—including leaving enough fish in the sea for sea lions—and supporting responsible fishing.”
Seattle-based factory trawlers catch the majority of the 4 billion pounds of fish caught a year. The fish harvested in Alaska is mostly shipped overseas for consumption. Furthermore, the Alaskan catch is often processed on these same Seattle factory trawlers, cutting Alaska processors out of the loop and reducing potential jobs and resources to local economies.