The states of Alaska and Washington announced this week they will conduct a review of a recent biological opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service concerning the impact of groundfish fisheries on Steller sea lions.
Top fish and wildlife officials from both states said they will assemble a panel of scientists to determine whether the federal agency used all relevant scientific information and impartially considered those facts in its final BiOp for Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries, released last November.
The BiOp evaluated the impact those fisheries have on the western population of Steller sea lions, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This BiOp served as the basis for significant fishery closures and restrictions in the western Aleutians that went into effect Jan. 1.
Cora Campbell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said those actions have put a heavy economic burden on the shoulders of fishing communities and fishermen, despite the evidence that the western stock of Steller sea lions are recovering.
“Before we severely curtail their economic livelihood, we should be certain these restrictions are necessary,” Campbell said. “Our assessment of the BiOp is that it fails to provide sound scientific justification that the restrictions are necessary or will benefit the Steller sea lion population.”
Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, also questioned whether the new fishing restrictions are warranted, noting that most Stellar sea lion populations have been growing throughout their range.
“We really need an independent scientific review to ensure that all of the science has been carefully reviewed,” Anderson said. “We need to verify that the costs of this action have been accurately estimated, and that they are appropriately targeted to minimize both jeopardy to the animals and harm to fishermen and their communities.”
Both states recently petitioned for the removal of the eastern sea lion populations from the Endangered Species list, based on steady increases over the past two decades alongside fisheries in Southeast Alaska, and throughout British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
The western populations are also showing strong growth in most areas where they occur in Alaska and Russia, indicating that drastic reductions in fishing in the central and western Aleutians may be misguided. Evidence is available to indicate that factors other than fishing are likely responsible for the apparent lack of growth in these few colonies, such as predation by killer whales or changes in the environment.
The scientific panel convened by the states will review the critical science relevant to the analysis of factors affecting the status and recovery of sea lions and deliver its report by June of this year. Issues to be examined include:
-- Scientific evidence that was not incorporated or adequately analyzed in the BiOp.
-- Factors other than fishing affecting the recovery of Steller sea lion populations.
-- Whether the economic valuations in the BiOp reflect the actual impacts to the affected communities and fishing fleets.
The panel will be chaired by a scientist from the states of Alaska and Washington, who will assemble a peer review panel. The panel’s report will be made available to the public, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the fishing industry and other stakeholders to assist in their assessments of the biological opinion.