Alaska Commercial Fishing Limited to Protect Sea Lions

Alaska and the local fishing industry lost their challenge of federal limits on commercial fishing as a means of protecting the state’s endangered Steller sea lions.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2010 National Marine Fisheries Service limits on Alaska fishing, based on federal concern that the sea lion population declines came from lack of food.

Alaska and the commercial fishermen challenged the NMFS use of seven sub-regions to calculate the population declines and nutritional stress.

“We hold that the use of sub-regions did not violate the ESA [Endangered Species Act] and that the agency utilized appropriate standards to find that continuing previous fishing levels in those sub-regions would adversely modify the critical habitat and jeopardize the continued existence of the entire population,” wrote Judge Mary Schroeder.

The panel also approved the requirement that the NMFS prepare an environmental impact statement on its decision, and approved a decision that a more extensive investigation under the National Environmental Policy Act was not required.

The agency found that between 2001 and 2009, there was a 7 percent decline in sea lion pups in the Aleutian Islands and a 43 percent decline in the western region.

The NMFS restricted cod fishing.

The law requires the Secretaries of Interior and Commerce to list endangered species and designate critical habitats for them.

Disputes between commercial fishing interests and Alaska, on one side, and federal authorities on this other has generated a decade of litigation over limits on fishing.  The current lawsuit centers on the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska, home to Steller sea lions and large scale commercial fisheries.

The fisherman also claimed the NMFS violated the NEPA and a fisheries conservation law.  The court rejected those claims as well.

In 1997, the NMFS divided the sea lion population into two distinct population groups, eastern and western, and set recovery plans.

In 2008, those were divided into seven sub-regions to monitor progress.  The court approved that system.

Judges Margaret McKeown and Richard Tallman joined Schroeder.

Case: State of Alaska v. Lubchenco, No. 12-35201




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