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Originally published August 2, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified August 2, 2010 at 10:43 PM

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With some sea-lion populations in swift decline, feds call for closing Aleutian fisheries

The population of Steller's sea lions is declining so rapidly in Alaska's Aleutian Islands that the Obama administration is calling for the emergency closure of commercial mackerel and cod fishing there. The fishing industry, largely based in Seattle, is alarmed and worried such measures could eventually lead to restrictions on parts of the $1 billion-a-year pollock catch in the nearby Bering Sea.

Seattle Times environment reporter

Endangered Steller's sea lions are faring so poorly at the tip of Alaska's Aleutian Islands that the Obama administration is calling for emergency commercial fishing closures for two prominent species: Atka mackerel and Pacific cod.

The proposed shutdown would hit a small, important segment of Alaska's largely Seattle-based fishing industry.

But it's also the latest evidence that sea lions have become a proxy in a simmering war over fishing in Alaska. Both the industry and environmentalists are eyeing the future of the $1 billion-a-year pollock industry in the nearby Bering Sea, a fishery that supplies half the country's catch of fish.

The fishing industry Monday expressed alarm at the severity and swiftness of the administration's proposal, which came in response to a 45 percent drop since 2000 in the western Aleutians' sea- lion population.

The National Marine Fisheries Service wants the closures and other restrictions to take effect early next year.

"What they've put on the table today is a head shot for us," said Dave Wood, counsel for United States Seafood in South Seattle.

The mackerel and cod catches in the western Aleutians bring fishermen about $60 million a year wholesale.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, insist the administration isn't doing enough to curb the use of massive factory trawlers, which drag giant nets through the water and sometimes hop along the seafloor.

"We're still trawling way too much in too many places," said Mike LeVine, counsel for the environmental group Oceana in Alaska. "And sea lions are telling us that trawling and fishing are unbalancing the whole system."

Steller's sea lions for decades were killed by hunters and fishermen and accidentally entangled in nets, their numbers declining in some places by nearly 90 percent since the 1960s.

Decades after those practices stopped, some populations still are struggling to recover. One of the most important of those is the western Aleutians.

Fisheries scientists acknowledged they still can't say with certainty what's causing the decline, but argued that competition for food in some areas is a factor.

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Sign of malnutrition

The administration said Monday that, while sea-lion populations in the eastern waters of Alaska were stable or on the rise, few sea lions were reproducing in the western Aleutians and the pups that were born had low birth weights — a sign of malnutrition.

Even before Monday's announcement, the four U.S. senators from Alaska and Washington, prodded by the fishing industry, sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, urging him to slow the closures.

But the agency said it felt it had to move quickly.

"The situation, we believe, is critical in the extreme western portion of their range, where declines are really startling," said Doug Mecum, deputy administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska. "We're compelled to take action as soon as we can."

The administration wants to halt all mackerel and cod fishing from Attu Island to Russian waters. It also wants other restrictions from there east to Dutch Harbor.

While cod fishermen potentially could make up for the loss by fishing in other areas, Mecum conceded the closures would be harder on the mackerel fleet.

"We know we're proposing closing the areas where all the fish are," he said. "But we don't believe we can or should allow what's happening there to continue."

Fishermen scrambled Monday to try to understand the implications of the 800-page scientific document.

"We work that fishery for about three months of the year," said Mike Szymanski, with Fishing Company of Alaska. "It's got the potential to mean substantial layoffs for us, but we can't say yet."

While Alaska's massive pollock fishery wasn't directly affected, that segment of Alaska's fishing fleet is still worried.

Research into decline

In the past decade, former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens helped steer more than $200 million toward Steller's sea-lion research to help find a root cause for declines, hoping government biologists won't eventually point to fishing.

Dave Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents the biggest fishing companies at work in the Bering Sea, wondered Monday if other fisheries now had a gun to their head.

"What will this mean for other fisheries in the future?" Benton asked.

Mecum said earlier fishing closures seemed to be having a positive effect in other areas, but his agency would have to keep its eye on things for several years.

And environmentalists admit they're not done seeking changes, and have made clear they would use the courts to impose broader restrictions if the administration doesn't take the necessary steps.

"Something out there clearly isn't working," said John Warrenchuk, with Oceana.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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