U.S. Senator Mark Begich welcomed the release today of the final Biological Opinion (BiOp) on the status of the western stock of Steller sea lions. The final BiOp finds most fishing activity in the Aleutians does not put the sea lion population in jeopardy, nor is such fishing activity adversely modifying the sea lion habitat.
"Today's announcement is a victory for good science and common sense," said Begich. "We need practical steps to protect sea lions but not look for scapegoats."
An earlier BiOp included a Jeopardy and Adverse Modification (JAM) declaration which resulted in widespread closures of fishing grounds in the Western Aleutians. These closures are estimated to have cost the fishing industry tens of millions of dollars over the past four years, some say much more.
The BiOp was also widely criticized by fishermen, the states of Alaska and Washington, and in independent peer reviews by the Center for Independent Experts. Those independent reviews found no scientific support for theories that fisheries jeopardize Steller sea lions through competition for prey, a situation that has been linked to chronic nutritional stress and reduced birth rates.
"Fishermen said populations of mackerel, cod and other prey species in the western Aleutians were healthy and fishing couldn't be the cause of the decline of sea lions. The independent peer reviews confirmed what Alaska fishermen knew all along," Begich said. "I pushed NOAA to include the comments of fishermen, the states and the independent peer reviews during their final review of this BiOp and welcome their final decision today."
The decision means the North Pacific Fishery Management Council can now move forward with its preferred alternative for managing affected fisheries next year. This includes buffer zones around rookeries and other reasonable protections for sea lions but would reopen fishing grounds that aren't shown to be part of the problem.
Concerns remain about Sea Lion populations in the western Aleutian Islands but sea lions in the western stock (Distinct Population Segment or DPS) elsewhere are recovering. The eastern stock of Steller sea lions was recently delisted as a threatened or endangered species.