SEAFOOD.COM NEWS  [KUCB/], April 10, 2013
By Stephanie Joyce

The National Marine Fisheries Service recently released a court-ordered draft environmental impact statement, intended to be the first step in resolving the decades-long debate over Steller sea lion protection measures in the western Aleutians. Last week, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council reviewed the document, and if their reaction is any indication, it’s not going to be a cure-all.

“This document has significant deficiencies as a draft EIS that will serve as the basis for public review and as the basis for decision-making,” said councilor Bill Tweit.

In a discussion that lasted for the better part of a day, the council roundly criticized the report for failing to answer the question of how different fisheries management strategies would affect Steller sea lion populations. In 2011, NMFS restricted fishing for Pacific cod and Atka mackerel in the western Aleutians on the grounds that the fisheries were directly competing with the sea lions for prey. The new report laid out three alternative management strategies, but councilor Cora Campbell said it didn’t provide any metrics for evaluating them.

“It’s difficult for the Council to contemplate making a decision when there’s a statement right in the draft EIS [environmental impact statement] that says it’s not possible to determine population-level effects on Steller sea lions between any of these alternatives that you’re considering,” Campbell said. “I think puts us in a very difficult position”

NMFS manager Melanie Brown responded that more detailed information simply isn’t available, and that the agency feels the current analysis is sufficient for choosing an alternative.

That didn’t stop the back and forth, but eventually the council conceded that it had to pick something. Expressing reservations, councilors unanimously selected a preferred management strategy that relaxes the fisheries closures currently in place, but doesn’t restore fishing to pre-2011 levels.

NMFS will evaluate the social, economic and environmental effects of that strategy in a second draft of the environmental impact statement due out in June. From there, the Council will have the opportunity to modify its proposal before the final statement is drafted.