Sea lion decline sparks federal fishing ban in Alaska's Aleutians

Federal regulators on Monday proposed new commercial fishing restrictions in the Aleutians to combat a steep decline of Steller sea lions in the western and central portion of the island chain.

The federal National Marine Fisheries Service proposes to close all commercial fishing for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in federal waters near Attu, the farthest island in the Aleutian chain. The agency is also proposing restrictions but not an outright ban on commercial fishing for mackerel and cod in the central Aleutians, west of Dutch Harbor.

The proposed restrictions, detailed in a 836-page draft biological opinion published Monday, cover the remote fishing grounds stretching between Dutch Harbor and the Russian border.

Fishing groups worry that the agency's recommendations are the end of mackerel and cod fishing in the Aleutians, worth tens of millions of dollars to fishermen. Environmentalists are worried that the fisheries service's proposal is inadequate to reverse the sea lion decline.

"It closes 90 percent of the historic fishing grounds (in the Aleutians) to cod and more so to mackerel," said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, a Seattle-based trade group that represents a portion of the trawl fleet in the Aleutians, the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

But one environmental group said Monday that the agency didn't go far enough. The sea lion decline is serious enough that the fisheries service should use its authority to restrict fishing set to begin this fall rather than waiting until next year, according to Oceana, a marine conservation group.

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