Counsel, I have a few questions...

On Wednesday afternoon, a bunch of attorneys met in a federal courtroom in Anchorage to argue the lawsuit over fishing restrictions imposed in the Aleutians to protect endangered Steller sea lions.

Deckboss, somewhat thankfully, was unable to attend the hearing.

While the case involves mountains of scientific data and legal briefs, the essential conflict really is very simple. The state and the industry don't feel the costly fishing restrictions are justified. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is being sued, feels otherwise.

Shortly before Wednesday's proceedings began, something unusual happened. Judge Timothy Burgess filed a list of questions for lawyers to address during the hearing.

Here are some examples, and I paraphrase somewhat:

• Doesn't the plain language of the Endangered Species Act suggest that, if anything, NMFS has to err on the side of assuming a causal relationship exists between the fisheries and the sea lion population?

• Although it took five years for NMFS to determine the fisheries jeopardized sea lions in the Aleutians, the agency skirted the normal public notice and comment process and hurriedly imposed the fishing restrictions. What was the emergency? Why couldn't NMFS have taken another few months to collect comments given that it had already taken five years?

• Why didn't NMFS issue a full environmental impact statement, as it had done on past occasions? Was it just rushing to complete the process in order to protect itself against litigation from Oceana and Greenpeace?

Of course, one must be careful not to read too much into the judge's questions. But they are fascinating, no?