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Saving Steller Sea Lions

Steller sea lions.

The western stock of Steller sea lions has declined by almost ninety percent from their historic levels.

Vladimir Burkanov / NOAA

What's at Stake

Steller sea lions, driven towards extinction by overfishing, were given a better chance to rebound thanks to an Earthjustice lawsuit that successfully defended federal regulations that limit fishing of the sea lions’ key food sources. In the face of ongoing industry opposition to these protective regulations, Earthjustice will continue to advocate for endangered Steller sea lions.

Case Overview

The western population of Steller sea lions has declined by more than 80 percent, and sharp declines still persist in the western Aleutian Islands. The distinct western population was first listed under the Endangered Species Act more than 20 years ago, and during that time Earthjustice and conservation groups have fought for the establishment of prey protections for the struggling apex predator.

Industrial fishing in Alaska imposes a substantial impact and places unnatural stress on the marine ecosystem by removing billions of pounds of fish from the food web every year. The factory trawl and longline vessels take important prey, including Atka mackerel, Pacific cod, and pollock, that would otherwise be available as food for other animals like Steller sea lions.

As a result of earlier litigation by Earthjustice, the federal government was forced to impose sea lion protection measures in the form of fishing restrictions in most areas used by sea lions, and then in 2011, the federal government put long-overdue protection measures in place for the remaining unrestricted areas where sea lion declines have continued. Industry challenged the government’s plan and Earthjustice intervened to defend the measures. After a victory in district court followed by an industry appeal, the appeals court again upheld necessary protections for the endangered western population of Steller sea lions.

These victories are under threat, however, as the federal government has initiated a process to reverse protection measures. Earthjustice will continue to advocate for strong Steller sea lion protections.

Case Updates

December 3, 2013 | Feature

Voyaging Back From an Age of Extinction

Steller’s sea cow was the first to disappear after a voyage of discovery accelerated a wave of extinction in North America. The tiny palila bird was the first to benefit from Earthjustice’s use of a law passed to end the extinctions.

August 4, 2013 | In the News: KUCB Unalaska Community Broadcasting

Western Aleutian Fishing Restrictions Survive Court of Appeals

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld vital protections for Steller sea lions when it ruled against representatives of the fishing industry and the State of Alaska, and affirmed that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is accurately assessing the health of the species. The NMFS had previously found that population declines among Steller sea lions were the result of nutritional stress inflicted by commercial fishing. These findings led the agency to use the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to enforce limits on large-scale fisheries in the Aleutians.

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