Seattle hearing on Steller fish restrictions in Alaska

SEATTLE — The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in Seattle Monday challenging the fishing restrictions federal regulators say are necessary to help Steller sea lions survive in western Alaska waters.

The committee headed by Washington Congressman Doc Hastings and including Alaska Congressman Don Young heard from state and federal officials, marine mammal researchers and fishing industry representatives.

Hastings wants the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to take another look at research that led the National Marine Fisheries Service to impose more fishing restrictions in January.

The restrictions drastically cut commercial fishing of mackerel and cod in the western Aleutians to reduce the competition sea lions face for food. Hastings estimated a loss to the fishing industry of at least $44 million a year and 250 jobs.

Congress has appropriate more than $150 million for Steller sea lion research beginning in 2001, and more than half went to NOAA, Hastings said in his prepared statement.

“Despite this funding, NOAA still is not able to answer the questions regarding whether the commercial fishing industry is limiting the food available for Steller sea lions,” he said.

Young said the Fisheries Service is making regulations with limited information.

“While we have no idea if these closures and restrictions will benefit the sea lion, we do know that they will have devastating effects on the fishermen and fishing communities,” Young said in his statement.

“And out of fear of a lawsuit by extreme organizations the agency hides behind `the best available science’ excuse and exercises an overabundance of precaution akin to someone who can’t swim refusing to bathe.”

The Steller sea lion has been on the Endangered Species List since 1990. In 1997, the population was reclassified into two population segments. The western population is endangered. The eastern Stellers of southeast Alaska are listed as threatened.

The western population fell from 250,000 in the early 1970s to about 45,000 by 2008. The cause of the decline has not been determined.

After the new restrictions were imposed in January, the state of Alaska and two fishing industry groups sued, arguing that restricted fishing was not needed because the population of western Steller sea lions was growing between 1 percent and 1.5 percent a year.

Steller sea lions are named after German naturalist George Wilhelm Steller who described them in 1742. They are among the largest sea lions. Males can weigh more than a ton.

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