SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


State Sues to Overturn NMFS Decision
on Western Steller Sea Lions


December 15, 2010

(SitNews) - The State of Alaska filed suit yesterday in the U.S. District Court for Alaska against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) over the agency’s decision to significantly curtail fishing in the western Aleutian Islands out of concern for Steller sea lions.

The state argues that NMFS failed to make “a rational connection” between the facts it found and the conclusions it reached, given that western Steller sea lions had an average annual population growth between 1.0 and 1.5 percent between 2000 and 2008, and now number more than 70,000.

“The agency’s conclusion that additional fishing restrictions are necessary is not supported by the best available scientific information,” Governor Parnell said. “The drastic measures proposed by NMFS are simply not necessary given the overall health of the Steller sea lion population. This decision will have immediate and significant impacts on local communities and fishermen in the area.”  

As many as 900 people are employed by fisheries fleets in the area facing restrictions. NMFS acknowledges that implementation of its decision would cost fishery losses of up to $66 million annually.

State officials also believe the federal agency committed numerous procedural violations, which had the effect of limiting the opportunity for public and expert comments.

“The state submitted extensive comments on both the process and the foundational science used to reach this decision,” said acting Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. “We are extremely disappointed that NMFS did not adequately consider these concerns and did not more fully incorporate the recommendations of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in its action. We are also very disturbed about the lack of meaningful public process.”

Regarding the State of Alaska's decision to file suit Tuesday against the National Marine Fisheries Service over the agency’s decision to significantly curtail fishing in the western Aleutians out of concern for Stellar Sea Lions, Congressman Don Young (R-AK) said in a prepared statement, “I commend Governor Parnell for taking the necessary steps to ensure the economic strength and freedom of Alaska.  The restrictions placed on fishing in the western Aleutians will cost the State of Alaska jobs and income, and be detrimental to our economy.  The livelihoods of many Alaskan families and communities are dependent on the fishing industry and they will take a direct hit from this misguided decision."  

Young said, “Issuing a more restrictive biological opinion when the population of Stellar Sea Lions is growing was not just ridiculous, it was irresponsible.   Threatening Alaskan communities as a result of this foolish ruling based on insufficient science is criminal.  The State was one hundred percent correct in filing this lawsuit and I will do everything in my power as Congressman to support them in this effort.”   

On December 09, 2010, NOAA’s Fisheries Service issued its final interim rule to reduce commercial fishing for groundfish stocks in the Aleutian Islands in an effort to provide more food for the endangered western Steller sea lion.

The rule, which would prohibit fishing for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod, the main source of food for the animal, in an area off the western Aleutian Islands, goes into effect January 1.

Fishing for these species will be prohibited in area 543 of the Aleutian Islands subarea, at the western tip of the Aleutian archipelago. The rule also further restricts fishing in the remainder of the Aleutian Islands subarea (areas 542 and 541 on map). These protective measures include establishing a three nautical mile buffer around a newly established rookery, new fishing closures for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in important Steller sea lion critical habitat foraging zones, reductions in Atka mackerel harvest amounts, and varying seasonal closures for various areas targeting Pacific cod.

Under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA’s Fisheries Service asserts it must ensure that agency actions to allow fisheries do not jeopardize the continued existence of endangered species such as the western Steller sea lion.

The final Alaska groundfish biological opinion, also issued December 9th by NOAA’s Fisheries Service, found that continuing with the current fishing levels and practices is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the western distinct population segment of Steller sea lions and adversely affect their critical habitat.

NOAA says the western Steller sea lion is either failing to recover or is declining in the western and central Aleutian Islands sub-regions, with the most serious decline in the western most subpopulation corresponding to fishing area 543. The animals in the area experienced a 45-percent decline between 2000 and 2008, and according to NOAA scientists, one of the major factors responsible for this decline may be lack of food.

Oceana, founded in 2001 and the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation, issued a news release in December supporting the National Marine Fisheries Service’s interim final rule addressing competition between commercial fisheries and endangered Steller sea lions in the western Aleutian Islands. By providing more food for sea lions in the western Aleutians, Oceana said these measures should help stem the continued decline there. They, however, do not address ongoing problems in other parts of the sea lions’ range said Oceana. These changes do not shut down fisheries, but they do reduce the catches of Atka mackerel and Pacific cod and close fishing in some important foraging habitat in the Aleutian Islands, where declines have been the most severe.

“NMFS took an important step forward [last week]. The continued decline and failure to recover the western population of Steller sea lions shows that we must do more to ensure healthy ocean ecosystems that include sustainable fisheries and support vibrant communities,” according to Oceana Pacific Director, Susan Murray. “There is still work to be done, but NMFS made a firm commitment to help stop the decline of the Steller sea lion.”

“I hope this addresses the problem, but it seems clear that there is more to be done,” said Oceana Scientist, Jon Warrenchuk. “We know that fishing is having an effect on Steller sea lions, and we can’t keep pushing this problem off on future generations. These measures don't shut down fisheries, and we hope we never get to the place where that is necessary.”

In developing the final biological opinion and the final interim rule, NOAA’s Fisheries Service took into account the proposal recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its August meeting, as well as all public comments. The final documents incorporate some elements of the Council’s proposal.

Concurrent with the regulatory actions, NOAA’s Fisheries Service continues to investigate Steller sea lion population dynamics, foraging ecology, physiology and biology, as well as effects on sea lions from killer whales, climate change, fisheries, diseases and various pollutants.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service plans to have the Center for Independent Experts review the final biological opinion in spring 2011. The center is a non-governmental organization that provides independent peer review of federal agency science, including NOAA’s Fisheries Service science, to ensure scientific integrity when it is used to make policy decisions.

NOAA is also currently evaluating the status of the eastern Steller sea lion population, which lives east of 144 degree west longitude and may be recovered enough to be removed from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife.

The eastern population, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, includes sea lions living in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, California, and Oregon.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service began its status review of the eastern Steller sea lion June 29 to determine whether or not it should be removed from the list of threatened and endangered species (delisted), or reclassified.

On August 30, the states of Washington and Oregon submitted a petition asking that the eastern population be delisted. The state of Alaska submitted a similar petition a day later, September 1.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service also announced on Dec. 9th its finding on its review of those two petitions that there is now substantial information indicating the species’ recovery, and that delisting may be warranted. NOAA’s Fisheries Service must complete the status review of the eastern Steller sea lion and issue its finding by August 30, 2011, within 12 months of receipt of the first petition.

To ensure a comprehensive review, NOAA’s Fisheries Service will have a 60-day public comment period (which began Dec. 9th) regarding the status of the eastern Steller sea lion.

Comments regarding the status of the eastern Steller sea lion should be addressed to:

Assistant Regional Administrator
Protected Resources Division
NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office
Attn: Ellen Sebastian

Comments may be submitted by the following methods:

Electronically via the Federal eRulemaking Portal,

By mail to:
P.O. Box 21668
Juneau, AK 99802-1668

Hand delivered to:
Juneau Federal Building
709 West 9th Street
Room 420A
Juneau, Alaska

By fax: 907-586-7557


On the Web:

A copy of the State of Alaska's complaint to overturn NMFS Decision
on Western Steller Sea Lion & curtail fishing:

Information on the Notice of Finding on the petitions to delist the eastern
Steller sea lion, go to:


Sources of News:

Office of Alaska Governor Sean Parnell

Office of Congressman Don Young


Oceana Pacific

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Ketchikan, Alaska