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Alaskan fishing banned in effort to save sea lions

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Saying federal officials haven't done enough to protect Steller sea lions, a federal judge has banned trawl fishing in Alaska waters deemed critical habitat for the endangered mammals.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle ruled Thursday that trawling for pollock, cod and other fish poses a "reasonably certain threat of imminent harm" to the sea lions.

The ban takes effect Aug. 8.

"This is a very good day for Steller sea lions," said Janis Searles, an attorney with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represented plaintiffs Greenpeace USA, American Oceans Campaign and Sierra Club in their lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Steller sea lion numbers in the region have dropped more than 80 percent in the past 35 years, from an estimated 230,000 animals in 1965 to 34,000 today.

Zilly agreed with the environmental groups that groundfishing may be harming sea lions by reducing their food supply and disrupting their foraging patterns. But he also said the efforts of the fisheries service haven't stopped the slide.

The trawling ban could cost the fishing industry about $100 million for the rest of this year and more than $175 million in the first half of 2001, according to the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents catcher-processor vessels.

Beth Stewart, natural resources director for the Aleutians East Borough, said her area would be badly hurt if the ban stands.

There would be a loss in taxes, and smaller boats, accustomed to fishing in critical habitat areas near shore, would have to go farther out to sea, raising costs.

The Commerce Department, which oversees the fisheries service, said the need to protect endangered sea lions is real, but so is the need to protect people.

"We're concerned that this injunction will have a severe impact on Alaska coastal communities," said Robert Mallett, acting commerce secretary. "The impacts will be greatest on fishermen using smaller vessels, in particular Alaska Native fishermen."

On the Net:

NOAA site on seals: www.fakr.noaa.gov/protectedresources/stellers.htm