TRANSCRIPT - Dr. Timothy Ragen
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
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
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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.