U.S. Senator Mark Begich has asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to respond to a critical peer review of its biological opinion (BiOp) on the decline in Steller sea lions in western Alaska. The review by three scientists selected by the Center of Independent Experts (CIE) found the scientific basis for any link between commercial fishing and the sea lion to be unsupported and speculative. Fishermen estimated annual losses of about $40 million due to the restriction.
"Many fishermen immediately questioned any link between their fishing activity and the decline in sea lion populations and now the peer reviewers say that link is not supported by the data," said Begich, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. "Critical fishery management decisions must be based on sound science and when that science is called into question, we need to know what NMFS intends to do about it. The fishing closures imposed as a result of that opinion are estimated to have cost industry millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs."
The final sea lion BiOp, signed in November 2010, found commercial fishing for Atka Mackerel, cod and other groundfish in the western Aleutians caused nutritional stress which placed sea lions in jeopardy or adversely modified their habitat. Its preferred Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA) went into effect January 1, 2011, and closed widespread areas in the western Aleutians to fishing beyond existing closed areas around rookeries.
Many affected fishing companies challenged the management actions imposed by the BiOp in court but the judge largely deferred to the agency's expertise on such matters. The peer reviewers, however, directly challenged many of the key BiOp's findings. Among their comments:
"The BiOp fails to provide reasonable support for the conclusion that continued fishing is likely to jeopardize the survival or adversely modify critical habitat of the western population of sea lion. There is no direct evidence that by removing fish, these fisheries compete with sea lion in the central and western Aleutians and elsewhere." (Dr. Don Bowen, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Nova Scotia)
"My evaluation of the information and data presented is that the conclusions of the Biological Opinion are not supported. Though a number of hypotheses including effects of commercial fisheries causing nutritional stress have been proposed to account for the earlier population decline and the potential for further declines or lack of recovery, there has been no causal evidentiary support for any of them." (Dr. Brent Stewart, Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, San Diego)
"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. Because the conclusions of the Biological Opinion are not supported by the evidentiary record or by persuasive arguments, the RPA is not a relevant consideration." (Dr. Brent Stewart)
"The evidence for fishery-induced nutritional stress is very limited and the hypothesis effectively remains conjecture; and the analysis of risks posed by fishing to prey fields is flawed.
Consideration of alternative explanations is relatively brief and betrays some bias in evaluating the naturally caused nutritional stress hypothesis." (Dr. Kevin Stokes, Wellington New Zealand)
"While the BiOp concludes that fishery-induced nutritional stress is likely and thus the FMP (Fishery Management Plan) cause jeopardy, this review finds the evidence to suggest no more than a possibility. The BiOp, however, applies a logic that effectively says if the effect is not disproven it must be likely." (Dr. Kevin Stokes)
Begich has requested a briefing from NMFS on its response to the peer review and the agencies' intended next steps.