SEAFOOD.COM NEWS [News Analysis], April 7, 2014
By John Sackton

The 2014 steller sea lion biological opinion released last week represents a stunning and very welcome turnaround for NOAA.

The reason is not that the new opinion will allow the reopening of some fishing grounds in the Aleutians for Atka mackerel, pacific cod and pollock in 2015, but because the agency demonstrated a real understanding of the scientific evidence, and did not shy away from following what the science said.

John Gauvin is the science director for the Alaska Seafood Cooperative, whose members fish in that area.

He said “I find this Bi-op to be night and day different from the 2010 and earlier bi-ops on Steller sea lions. Most striking in my opinion, is that it is very objective about what is known about the different possible theories for the sea lion population decline and it does not make the correlation type of arguments that were so prevalent in the 2010.”

The basic objection to the Bi-op in 2010 was that the conclusions that fishing put sea lions in jeapordy were not supported by any of the scientific evidence. For example, in the 2010 Bi-op, NMFS claimed that since Atka Mackerel fishing occurs East of 178 degrees west longitude, and Steller sea lion population decline rates are higher east of 178 West, therefore the decline must be caused by Atka mackerel fishing.

Furthermore, other studies cited in the Bi-op in 2010 that claimed nutritional distress, could not document how fishing contributed to nutritional distress, if at all. Again, the emergency closure was based on a correlation that Sea Lions were experiencing nutritional distress, and that fishing was occurring, so therefore one must cause the other. This was why the Bi-op was considered to be more of an ideological than scientific document, making assertions that were believed by some in the agency, but not able to be documented properly.

Gauvin also says ”Another notable difference is that the authors of this document appear to understand a lot more about the way fisheries occur and therefore they make logical inferences about how and where fishing will occur under the PPA. The 2010 and earlier Bi-ops tended to say that they could not eliminate the possibility that all the boats would fish in one area for all the TAC even if that made no sense economically or logistically. “

“ This Bi-op, is therefore better able to characterize where fish will be caught and at what rate, hence it comes up with a more realistic assessment of how much SSL prey will be caught in each area of a given period of time.

“ Additionally, the document actually uses the SSL telemetry data rigorously to characterize what areas are most important to SSL.

In past Bi-ops, there was a strong tendency to spin the telemetry data as somehow overestimating the degree to which SSL depend on nearshore feeding areas.”

The impact was to suggest that greater closures were needed, even beyond 10 nautical miles from rookeries.

“For example, the 2010 Bi-op argued that all of area 543 in the eastern Aleutian Islands needed to be closed because there were some offshore telemetry positions recorded. In reality, those offshore positions were in abyssal waters, clearly SSL (Steller Sea Lions) were not feeding on groundfish, probably they were feeding on lanternfish and juvenile salmon at upwellings 100 miles or more offshore.”

The new Bi-op also took better account of the outside reviews, which were quite critical of the earlier effort. The summarized the views of the outside scientists in a very balanced way. In this case, NMFS included some objective discussion of how the outside reviewers looked at the science, and where NMFS agrees with them, and where they disagree.

Where NMFS disagrees with the outside reviewers the outline why, and in general it is because they are applying a more precautionary approach in making their determinations.

This is an appropriate area for judgement, and they have acknowledged the science while making the judgments required under the law.

Gauvin says “The most important part of the treatment of the reviews is the summary at the beginning of the Bi-op where they characterize what the different reviewers thought. The part I found quite good was that this Bi-op states upfront that one of the most serious issues for the reviewers was that the 2010 Bi-op tended to have a pre-determined conclusion and inherent bias towards concluding that SSL trends in the Aleutians were being caused by fishing. This Bi-op says that NMFS took that criticism quite seriously and, again in my opinion, they avoided doing that.”

In summary, says Gauvin, “this Bi-op is a major regime shift in how science is done in the context of the Endangered Species Act and how fishing may compete wit Steller Sea Lions.”

The finding of No Jeopardy that NOAA announced last week is the only conclusion that is actually supported by the science.