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By MARK THIESSEN
ANCHORAGE — A federal agency was correct when it restricted fishing in the Aleutian Islands to protect endangered Steller sea lions, which are nutritionally stressed because of a lack of food, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
The decision from the appeals court, written by Judge Mary M. Schroeder, said the National Marine Fisheries Service did not violate the Endangered Species Act when it based the restrictions on declines in sub-regions of the species and not the entire population.
Schroeder also said "the agency utilized appropriate standards to find that continuing previous fishing levels in those sub-regions would adversely modify the critical habitat and jeopardize the continued existence of the entire population."
The court’s decision upholds an earlier judgment from the U.S. District Court in Anchorage against the plaintiffs, the state of Alaska and commercial fishing interests.
"We are pleased that the Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s conclusion that NOAA Fisheries made appropriate decisions under the Endangered Species Act and other applicable laws," Julie Speegle, a spokesman for NMFS, said in an email to The Associated Press. "We look forward to working with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and stakeholders to complete the pending Environmental Impact Statement that is examining potential fishery modifications that will support sustainable fisheries and protect endangered Steller sea lions."
The state Department of Law said in a statement that it was disappointed by the decision.
"Alaska and several fishery groups challenged the closures because they were not based upon the best available science, ignored the fact that western populations of the Steller sea lion have been steadily growing each year under the existing fishery regulations, and violated both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)," the statement says.
"Unfortunately, today’s decision keeps the disputed fishery closures in place at the expense of Alaskan jobs and economic opportunities," it says, adding that the state is evaluating its options.
The lawsuit was filed after the fisheries service announced late in 2010 that commercial mackerel and cod fisheries in the western Aleutians would be restricted. The closure rule took effect Jan. 1, 2011, despite objections. The fisheries agency said it had to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
Environmental groups Oceana and Greenpeace, represented by Earthjustice, intervened on behalf of the fisheries service.
The state argued restricting fishing was unnecessary when the western Steller sea lions’ population is growing by 1 percent to 1.5 percent a year. But an attorney for NMFS said during oral arguments in U.S. District Court that the state was presenting an overly optimistic picture of the population’s status, and that any improvements were not statistically significant.
Susan Murray, a deputy vice president for Oceana, called the court’s decision a "victory for healthy oceans."
"We stopped shooting but continued to take their food. It is no surprise the animals aren’t recovering, and our government had no choice but to place limits on fishing for important prey species," she said in a statement.
She called for the state and fishing industry to "stop fighting the law and science and help us move forward toward better management for our ocean resources."
The fisheries service says about 49,000 sea lions lived in the western Aleutian Islands, according to a 2008 survey. That’s down from 250,000 in the early 1970s. The animals were listed as endangered in 1997.