Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is presenting to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council its framework for significantly revising a plan to protect the ecosystems of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, after finally recognizing its previous plan was legally defective. Greenpeace, the American Oceans Campaign, and the Sierra Club hailed this announcement as an opportunity for the Council to put the needs of the ocean ecosystem before the fishing industry by significantly altering fishing practices, and are calling on the Council to put forth a true ecosystem alternative for consideration by NMFS. In response to the comments of the groups that its draft plan was fatally flawed, NMFS last week announced its intention to return to the drawing board.
“If you are not alarmed by the serious declines of Steller sea lions, otters, fur seals, birds, and other marine life in the North Pacific, you’re not paying attention,” said Phil Kline of American Oceans Campaign. “Industrial fishing removes huge amounts of fish that are important prey for other fish and marine animals, and these removals effect the entire health of the food chain.”
The announcement by NMFS was spurred by a 1998 lawsuit brought by Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice and Trustees for Alaska. According to the groups, industrial fishing for pollock has had devastating effects on Steller sea lions, a species unique to the Alaskan coast. Once numbering almost 250,000, the sea lion population has plummeted to under 50,000 in just 30 years and was added to the endangered species list in 1997.
In 1999, a federal court ordered NMFS to consider alternative ways to manage the North Pacific fisheries. As a result, NMFS released a draft document in January of 2001, and conducted a public comment period that resulted in over 20,000 comments. Many of the comments criticized the agency for its failure to offer real alternatives to protect the marine environment. The comments came from every state in the nation, as well as 28 foreign countries.
“The public knows you can’t pull 1,000,000 tons of a single species of fish like pollock out of the ocean year after year and pretend that it doesn’t have an effect on other life,” said Andrianna Natsoulas, Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner. “The government’s announcement is a victory for all the environmental groups that sued them to protect the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska ecosystems.”