Proposed rule would clarify what’s legal, what’s not for fishermen keeping marine mammals away

 Steller sea lions (Photo from NOAA)
Steller sea lions (Photo from NOAA) (KTUU)
Published: Sep. 15, 2020 at 6:47 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Marine mammals and fishermen in Alaska have often overlapped in their pursuit of fish and conflicts between the two can prove costly for both parties.

Now, a proposed regulation from NOAA Fisheries aims to give guidance on how fishermen can protect their catch, gear and marine mammals.

Longtime fishermen remember when they could solve the problem of pesky seals or sea lions stealing their catch and damaging gear with a shotgun, but federal protections have outlawed that practice.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 have helped several populations of marine mammals rebound. Though the laws still allowed fishermen and harbormasters to make use of some non-lethal deterrents to protect private property and their catch, the line between what is acceptable and what is illegal has not always been clear.

“It flat said back when they wrote it in the ’70s that they would provide a list of legal deterrents that commercial fishermen could use. That has never been done,” Kathy Hansen, executive director of the multi-species, multi-gear Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, said.

The proposed rule assesses a thorough list of deterrents, which are categorized as either acoustic or non-acoustic.

For fishermen, the problem with non-lethal deterrents is that many have little noticeable effect and those that do work are only a temporary solution. Seal bombs, a type of explosive pest control device, became one of the preferred methods fishermen in Alaska used after shooting sea lions was outlawed, however a change in licensing requirements and increased enforcement by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives have made the deterrents more difficult to get authorization to use.

“If they’re used too close to an animal, [they] could potentially cause permanent hearing damage,” Kim Raum-Suryam, a marine mammal specialist with NOAA Fisheries said. “So there are rules about if they can be used around certain species, how far away, silent intervals between when they’re used.”

The proposed rule allows for seal bombs to be used in some circumstances, such as in certain areas where visibility is at least 100 meters and there are no whales, dolphins, or porpoises within 100 meters of the user. There are different minimum requirements based on if seals are present, and differences within those requirements based on the species of seals.

The methods in the guidance were not evaluated based on their effectiveness, but rather their impact on marine mammals.

“Marine mammals depredate -- take fish -- get caught in gear, so it injures marine mammals and it causes economic loss to fishermen,” Raum-Suryam said. “So we want to try to help find methods to avoid these conflicts between marine mammals and humans so that they can co-exist safely together, which I really believe they can.”

Hansen says that while the proposed rule would help clear up some confusion among fishermen about what methods to deter marine mammals are legal, it could also lead to new confusion based on the location and species-specific requirements.

“Most of the common deterrents that fishermen use are explosive pest control devices and whale pingers, and both of those are addressed in the rule,” Hansen said. “Where it will get confusing for fishermen is that you can use them on some species in an area, but not necessarily on another species in the same area. And so I think that might cause some confusion for fishermen moving forward.”

The proposed rule is not intended to have any impact on the Alaska Native take of marine mammals for subsistence use or to make clothing or handicrafts.

Public comment on the proposed rule is being accepted through Oct. 30.

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