"The clock is ticking towards Steller sea lion extinction, but NMFS still allows areas essential to the species to remain a major focus for the trawl fisheries," said Paul Clarke, Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner. "NMFS needs to stop applying band-aids and head-off the extinction of this animal by prohibiting trawling in critical habitat."
Steller sea lion populations in Alaska have dropped dramatically in the past 30 years. In parts of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, the endangered western stock has plummeted by 80-90%. NMFS first listed the population as threatened under the ESA in 1991, and reclassified the status of the western stock to endangered in 1997, acknowledging that extinction could occur in the foreseeable future.
This drop coincides with the development of massive groundfish trawl fisheries in these same areas since the 1960s. Trawling is a fishing practice that involves towing large nets behind the vessel in pursuit of large volumes of groundfish, such as pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel, and which claims many other species of fish as unwanted bycatch. These same groundfish also feed Steller sea lions and other marine mammals and seabirds. Food limitation is the leading explanation for the sea lion's decline, and scientists point to the trawl fisheries as having the greatest potential impact on prey availability for Steller sea lions.
Steller sea lion critical habitat was established in 1993, and includes aquatic regions out to 20 nautical miles around terrestrial rookeries and haulouts, as well as three distinct aquatic areas in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska that are known to be essential feeding areas for sea lions. Critical habitat is defined under the Endangered Species Act as areas that are "essential to the conservation of the species." These same areas are also targeted by the groundfish trawl industry, with as much as 50-80% of recent trawl fishery catches of key sea lion prey species taken from areas designated as Steller sea lion critical habitat. "NMFS's approach to the ESA creates a loophole large enough to run the entire groundfish trawl fleet through," said Janis Searles, an Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund lawyer.
"The fisheries can afford to move out of critical habitat, but sea lions can't," said Phil Kline, Fisheries Policy Director for American Oceans Campaign. "NMFS has repeatedly failed to protect Steller sea lions; every year that the agency fails to act is another lost opportunity, and time is slipping away for the sea lions."
On January 25 District Court Judge Thomas Zilly ruled that NMFS was in continuing violation of the ESA for failing to prepare a comprehensive biological opinion examining the cumulative effects of North Pacific groundfish trawling on Steller sea lions. Today's action stems from a lawsuit filed in April 1998 by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and Sierra Club Alaska against NMFS for violations of the ESA and National Environmental Policy Act.