Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service today rejected, for the most part, pleas to scale back planned fishery closures in the Aleutian chain to protect the endangered Steller sea lion.
The news came in a packed and anxious room at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, where the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting this week.
The council in August sent NMFS a less severe alternative to the closures the agency says are necessary to avoid jeopardizing the Stellers, which feed on the same cod and Atka mackerel that commercial fishermen chase.
Doug DeMaster, science and research director for NMFS in Seattle, today told the council the planned closures probably can be reduced slightly in one section of the Aleutians — area 542.
But for the most part, NMFS said no to the council's alternative. Most significantly, fishing for cod and Atka mackerel will be forbidden entirely in area 543, at the western end of the Aleutian chain.
The restrictions are expected to take effect Jan. 1.
The NMFS decision pretty much seals a multimillion-dollar loss of fishing opportunity for the commercial fleet.
Naturally, consternation was written on the faces of the many industry players in the room. And some council members weren't too happy, either.
Council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak told DeMaster it seemed to him that NMFS had given the council's alternative "short shrift."
Cora Campbell, representing the state of Alaska on the council, said NMFS was basing the closures on "really scanty data."
DeMaster's major argument was that the "prey field," the amount of fish available for foraging sea lions, is projected to expand greatly under the NMFS plan but only a little under the council alternative.
He said the council alternative simply wasn't adequate to avoid jeopardizing Steller sea lions, the numbers of which have been declining markedly in the western Aleutians while generally rising elsewhere in Alaska.
DeMaster conceded, however, that not enough is known about what the region's sea lions actually eat throughout the year, and how they hunt for food.
Not everyone is unhappy with NMFS. Many people sent comments supporting the planned fishery closures.