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Alaska sues over planned fishing restrictions aimed at protecting sea lions

December 15, 2010 |  8:15 pm

Steller Sea Lions

ANCHORAGE — The state of Alaska filed a lawsuit Tuesday in an effort to stop a federal agency's plan to protect endangered sea lions by restricting fishing in the western Aleutian Islands.

Gov. Sean Parnell said the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to make a rational connection between what it found and the conclusion it reached that fishing needs to be curtailed in the far western Aleutians because sea lions aren't getting enough to eat.

"The agency's conclusion that additional fishing restrictions are necessary is not supported by the best available scientific information," Parnell said.

The state asked the court to issue a ruling to prevent NMFS' plan from being implemented Jan. 1.

Last week, the federal agency announced that commercial mackerel and cod fisheries in the western Aleutians would be restricted. The state argues that restricted fishing isn't necessary when the population of western Steller sea lions is growing between 1% and 1.5% a year.

"This decision will have immediate and significant impacts on local communities and fishermen in the area," the governor said.

NMFS, as a matter of policy, does not comment on pending litigation, said spokeswoman Julie Speegle.

According to Parnell's office, up to 900 people are employed by fleets in the areas where fishing will be restricted. It says the plan would cost fishery losses of tens of millions of dollars annually, and it believes the federal agency committed procedural violations that limited input from the public and experts.

The state has made similar arguments in suing over Endangered Species Act protections for polar bears and Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Michael LeVine, a lawyer with the environmental group Oceana, said the biological opinion on sea lions prepared by NMFS is the result of 15 years of scientific research.

"The science shows that the competition between fisheries and sea lions is occurring throughout the range of the western population," he said.

Fishermen, most of them Seattle-based, harvest more than 4 billion pounds of fish from the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska each year.

About 45,000 sea lions lived in the western Aleutian Islands in 2008, down from 250,000 in the early 1970s. The animals were listed as endangered in 1997.

RELATED SEA LION NEWS:

-- Associated Press

Photo: Steller sea lions sun themselves in the mouth of Resurrection Bay, near Seward, Alaska, in 2000. Credit: Al Grillo / Associated Press

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