Dr. Timothy J. Ragen is the National Marine Fisheries Service Coordinator for the recovery of threatened and endangered Steller sea lions in Alaska.


Could you speak about how a complex of fisheries may be cumulatively affecting the sea lion population?

We're in the process of conducting a Section 7 Consultation under the Endangered Species Act. And the purpose of the consultation is to determine whether or not groundfish fisheries may jeopardize listed species, or protected species, or adversely modify their critical habitat -- the habitat that's necessary for their survival.

Part of our analysis is looking at the cumulative or overall impacts of all of the groundfish fisheries. We have in the past looked at individual fisheries to determine what their impacts might be on Steller sea lions or their habitat. But we also have to look at the combined overall effect.

And by doing that we'll be determining not just what the effect of a single fishery, like the pollock fishery, is but when you take the pollock fishery and you place that on top of, say, a cod fishery and then the mackerel fishery, and maybe rockfish or flatfish fisheries, what is the total impact on Steller sea lions? That's one of the fundamental questions for this kind of consultation.

Why all the controversy about Steller sea lions? What is the problem here?

Steller sea lions are a large marine predator in the north Pacific, ranging all the way from California around the Pacific Rim to Japan. In the last two to three decades, they have declined by about 80% at a really rapid rate. And there are many parts of that decline that we don't really understand. And the rate of decline continues today and so we are trying to impede that, or stop that decline and facilitate the recovery of the species.

Is there any evidence that has to do with a lack of prey species or a lack of nutrition?

Nutritional stress is the leading hypothesis for the decline at present. The general idea is that sea lions are not getting enough food - either the quality or the quantity that would allow them to reproduce and survive at a rate that will result in positive population growth. The concern that we have at the moment is some of the reasons they are not getting enough food is possibly due to competition with the commercial fisheries.

Of the various fisheries that might be contributing to this problem, why is the pollock fishery the one that's being mentioned?

Actually, we are concerned about all of the fisheries, and even in a broader context, we are concerned about all factors that may affect Steller sea lions, not just fisheries. The pollock fishery was focused on initially almost as a sort of historical artifact.

In the Gulf of Alaska, the most recent Section 7 Consultation was ready to expire in 1998, so we needed to re-consult on that fishery. In the Bering Sea there were some major changes in the management or the allocation of pollock among what's called the inshore fleet and the offshore fleet, and because of those changes, we needed to focus on the pollock fishery.

At the same time we were looking at those fisheries - the pollock fishery in the Gulf and the Bering Sea, we looked at the mackerel fishery in the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands. So those were the first three we looked at, but again, we are concerned with all of the fisheries and all of the factors that would affect Steller sea lions.

Are you aware of which type of fish Steller sea lions tend to eat?

Pollock is the major prey item in the Steller sea lion diet and based on frequency of occurrence - which means how many times do you find that particular prey item in whatever it is you are looking at to evaluate their diet - they also consume jack and mackerel, they consume pacific cod, various species of flatfish, rock fish, probably squid, octopus, quite a number of different species in their diet.

Can you describe the management efforts that have already been made by the National Marine Fisheries Service to disperse the ground fishing effort, in terms of space and time, in order to minimize the impact on Steller sea lion populations?

We adopted three different principles to try to prevent any fishery effects on Steller sea lions. The first one was actually to protect the areas around rookeries and major haul-outs, so we drew circles around many of the major rookeries and haul-outs out to ten nautical miles around on Gulf of Alaska and twenty nautical miles in the Bering Sea, and said no trawl fishing for pollock within those circles.

The second step we took was to try and protect special times of the year. We are particularly concerned about the effects of fisheries in the winter months. So we close certain periods from November 1 to January 19, for the pollock fishery to try to prevent competition during that sensitive period.

Another principle was to spatially distribute the fishery outside of those protected areas and we did that by trying to distribute the catch according to the distribution of the pollock stock so that you didn't have areas where catch and effort were concentrated, and therefore might result in a localized depletion of prey. In addition, we also then broke the fishing time of year into four seasons in certain areas so that we spread it out, not only spatially, but also temporally.

How long will the evaluation of the effects of this effort on Steller sea lions take to determine?

When we imposed these management measures, what we hoped to get was some positive effect on Steller sea lions. But when you look at how we measure those effects, we'll really see probably two different kinds of signals. One would be an increase in reproduction. That might happen fairly soon.

But in general what we would expect to see is more animals reaching maturity, and then their reproduction would increase. The time it takes for that to all happen might be 5, 6, 7, 8 years in total. So, we may not get a really strong signal or indication that these management measures have worked for a good 5 to 8 years.

Halibut fishermen have always been inclined to support such low total allowable catches in the North Pacific. Why is the attitude of these fishermen so different?

Well, they figured it was their livelihood and someone had better take good care of it to perpetuate it as long as possible. And we had a lot of input into the management. And we had fishermen and processors and government people on the commission and we had a lot to say about how the quotas and the seasons were. Many of us were overcautious or conservative. We sort of helped bring the quotas down to what we thought was reasonable amounts.

With the recent lawsuit, it seems that some environmental groups felt that the measures that were taken had not been sufficient. Considering what you just said, might it be the case that there is some kind of lack of patience or understanding that these measures will take a while to bear fruit? Why do you think they are suing NMFS?

We were being sued by three different environmental organizations: Green Peace, American Oceans Campaign, and the Sierra Club. But the suit was brought for a number of different reasons and one was that those environmental groups don't feel that we have been sufficiently protective or precautionary in the way that we manage the groundfish fisheries off of Alaska.

Recently in this suit, the court enjoined the groundfish fisheries within Steller sea lion critical habitat, or at least the trawling portion of the groundfish fisheries. And the purpose of doing that was to insure that we're not having an effect during the period while we are completing a comprehensive analysis of those fisheries and their potential effect on Steller sea lions.

So the most recent suit, specifically, is that the Agency is not taking measures to make sure that the fishing effort is complying with the measures that you've been trying to implement?

Right, the suit is for two different reasons. One has to do with substance, the other has to do with procedure. There are claims against the Agency that the measures we are taking are not sufficiently precautionary in order to protect the Steller sea lion. There's also a claim that we have not completed a sufficiently comprehensive analysis of the potential effects, and so these environmental groups would like to see us complete that analysis before we continue with trawl fishing in Steller sea lion critical habitat. The court agreed that we had not completed that analysis and has now enjoined the trawling portion of the ground fish fisheries to stop that action until we have completed our analysis.

It seems that by and large, the groundfish fishery has supported what the science has prescribed. It doesn't seem like that has been a problem. Does it concern you that the industry might ever resist, or question, the closing of certain areas to protect Steller sea lions?

Oh, yes, I believe there would come a time when they would resist that and in fact I think that time has arrived. We went through the last two years, we went through a series of meetings with the industry, and with the public at large, where there were lots of opinions expressed as to whether we should be closing areas or adjusting the fisheries in order to protect Steller sea lions. And you can imagine that you would get a gamut of opinions on that. But the industry has expressed their own views that they don't think some of these measures are warranted. And in fact, they have also taken us to court on these suits. So while the environmental groups are suing us from one side, the industry is suing us from the other side on the same issues.

How does that feel, either personally, or as a representative of the Agency, to be sued on both sides like that?

Well, it's a little bit strange and it's a little bit awkward sometimes. Because on the one hand you want to turn to one direction and make an argument and then on the other hand, you look the other direction and you've got someone coming from you with the opposite argument.

But what you have to keep in mind all of the time is that we're trying to achieve three basic things in our agency. One is to have sustainable fisheries. Two would be to protect habitat and three would be to recover protected species. And it isn't necessarily a matter of balancing those things; it's more a matter of making sure that you achieve all three of those things. And so you keep that in mind when you are getting hammered from both sides.

Do you think what's happening with the Steller sea lines is an example of a cascading effect of too large a fishing effort and possibly management mistakes? Might we be seeing more of this type of thing as time goes on?

The Steller sea lion may, in fact, be a kind of indicator species. They are a top-level predator and those top-level predators are often very susceptible to the impacts of human activities. The Agency has given me the responsibility right now to start working on analyses that look at the potential effects of these groundfish fisheries so that we can determine whether or not they are having an effect, not only on Steller sea lions, but on the larger ecosystem. So the question of whether or not the ecosystem is vulnerable to groundfish fishing activities or other human activities is a very legitimate question and we are looking at it.

The work that we are doing right now, much of it is done under the Endangered Species Act. And the Endangered Species Act has a number of important components to it, but it also stresses the importance of conserving the health of marine ecosystems, or all ecosystems to support endangered or threatened species. That calls for ecosystem management.

And you hear the same terms or the same concepts when you look at the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Management Act or at the Marine Mammal Protection Act. All of these Acts place a high priority on ecosystem conservation.

The difficulty that we are having right now is that we can formulate principles for how that might occur, but it's been very, very difficult to actually apply some of those principles in real life situations. We're at an almost infant stage, and doing that kind of ecosystem management, we have a lot to learn about doing it. And so I think we should be very cautious about how we proceed, recognizing that we may not be able to detect serious effects until we are a long way down the road.

Do you think it could ever be the case that the industry could have an influence at the highest levels that can actually exert pressure on an agency like the National Marine Fisheries Service to implement policies or even put together the science?

Yes, I think that it is very reasonable to expect that political forces can put pressure on a resource managing agency, like the National Marine Fisheries Service, the community that we are involved in managing the fishing industry includes environmental groups, the public, the fishing industry itself, scientists and the managers, but it also includes high levels of our government, including Congress. Congress provides the funding for this kind of management and so they have a sort of leverage in the way we manage these fisheries.

A great number of the decisions we have to make hinge largely on our values. And our values should be expressed in the nation's laws. The Endangered Species Act, for example, is a good expression of the value that our society places on endangered species and the ecosystems that support those.

But at the same time, the fishing industry, for example, has a value that they need to go out and make money and conduct their business. And when there are threats to that business, it makes sense from their point of view to go to find relief from those threats wherever they can find it. And certainly if I were a fisherman, I probably would go to Congress and say there is something threatening my livelihood. I expect and know that they, in fact, do that.

The challenge then, is for our Agency to still do it's job to determine what it thinks is best in terms of the laws that congress has passed and its responsibilities or its mandates and sometimes that may mean that we have to make decisions that are unpopular or that don't satisfy everybody's concerns including congress, or the industry, or environmental groups, whoever that may be.

Is the precautionary principle weighing in on management decisions in Alaskan waters?

The Steller sea lion has been declining for at least two decades. And again, as I mentioned, it has declined at least 80% during that period. This is an extraordinarily rapid rate of decline - something that we really would not have anticipated for a large marine mammal like the Steller sea lion. We are honestly baffled by this decline in many respects. And we have, at best, a very limited ability to predict what might happen to it in the future. The best predictor of the future, probably, is what happened in the recent past and that indicates continued decline.

And because we know so little about the nature of the decline, and about Steller sea lions in general, and their interaction with fisheries or the prey species in the Bering Sea and in the Gulf of Alaska, I think it argues that we need to be extraordinarily cautious in the way that we approach these things.

Marine mammals can decline rapidly, but they don't recover very rapidly and so there's a lot at stake here. We need to be very careful about how we manage this situation, and take the long view if we really want to achieve healthy and sustainable ecosystems.