Independent reviewers of a federal biological opinion that continued groundfish fishing in the Aleutians would likely jeopardize the continued existence of endangered Steller sea lion have concluded this opinion is not supported by sound evidence.
“There is no direct evidence that by removing fish, these fisheries compete with Steller sea lions in the central and western Aleutians and elsewhere,” wrote W.D. Bowen, one of three members of the Center for Independent Exports panel engaged by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“Overall, the review finds all of fishery –induced and natural nutritional stress, and killer whale predation, to be possible,” wrote Kevin Stokes, another of the reviewers. “The reality is that the reasons for Steller sea lion lack of recovery in some sub-regions are complicated and may never be unraveled.”
A third panel member, Brent Stewart, found that “speculative and hypothetical suggestions for jeopardy and adverse modification do not, I think, meet the standard established by the Endangered Species Act, to conclude that the actions have a substantial chance (likely) of jeopardy and adverse modification.”
Federal fisheries officials made a decision in late 2010 to restrict commercial Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries in the western Aleutians, home of the western population of Steller sea lions, which was listed as endangered in 1997. Their numbers have substantially declined since the early 1970s. The decision to restrict this multi-million dollar fishery came after extensive testimony for and against such action, over how the harvest of these fish affected the health of Steller sea lions.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, has asked NMFS to respond to the review, saying the fishing closures imposed as a result of the biological opinion are estimated to have cost industry millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs.