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Steller Sea Lion Litigation Brought to a Close

On April 2, 2003, Seattle federal judge Thomas Zilly issued an order wrapping up a successful six-year-old lawsuit that changed the way oceans off the coast of Alaska are managed. The order was dated April 1, 2003. The real winners in the suit are Steller sea lions, seals, sea birds, and the rest of the marine creatures that make the waters off Alaska among the richest on earth.

"With the two decisions from the court this winter, all the issues the conservation groups raised back in 1998 have been resolved, and we have largely prevailed," said Earthjustice attorney Janis Searles. "The court ruled in our favor in virtually all the issues we've litigated over the past several years, and has directed the government to protect sea lions and their habitat and fully assess the impacts of the fisheries on the entire North Pacific ecosystem."

Most recently, in December 2002, the Federal District Court for the Western District of Washington ruled that the biological opinion governing the fisheries was illegal because it did not adequately consider the effects of federally managed groundfish fisheries on endangered Steller sea lions and their habitat. The court sent the document back to the National Marine Fisheries Service for more work. In addition the court set a schedule for the completion of a new environmental impact statement that examines the impact of the fisheries as a whole on the entire North Pacific ecosystem and considers any necessary changes in those fisheries.

Steller sea lions in western Alaska have declined by almost 90 percent in the past several decades. The plunge in sea lion numbers in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea coincides with the rise in industrial fishing in the sea lions' home waters. For the past several years, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal government agency responsible for protecting sea lions, has acknowledged that the massive federally managed fisheries that target sea lion prey in important sea lion habitat had to be modified to protect sea lions.

The order signed by the judge includes deadlines for the National Marine Fisheries Service to complete analyses and documents required by the court.

"The North Pacific is one of the most magnificent marine systems in the world and the federal government wasn't doing its job protecting sea lions, whales, sea birds and all the other rich wildlife there," said Searles. "It's now up to the government to follow the law as the court told it to and protect these national treasures. We will be watching them closely."

Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice and Trustees for Alaska, filed the Steller sea lion lawsuit 1998.