Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld necessary protections for the endangered Western Population of Steller sea lions. The measures were put in place by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2010 to reduce competition between large-scale commercial fisheries and endangered Steller sea lions. Oceana and Greenpeace, represented by Earthjustice, joined the federal government in successfully defending the regulations against legal attacks from the Seattle-based fishing industry and Alaskan state government, which had appealed an earlier District Court’s decision also upholding the protections.
“This decision reinforces the importance of maintaining strong measures to protect Steller sea lions from the adverse effects of fishing, particularly in the western and central Aleutians,” said Colin O’Brien, attorney for Earthjustice. “Not only is it important to protect sea lions in their own right, but the species is a key indicator of overall ecosystem health and fishery sustainability.”
“Today’s decision is a victory for healthy oceans,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s Deputy Vice President, Pacific. “Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands have had a tough history, from being shot for sport to fisheries taking their food. We stopped shooting but continued to take their food. It is no surprise the animals aren’t recovering, and our government had no choice but to place limits on fishing for important prey species. Hopefully the State and the fishing industry will stop fighting the law and science and help us move forward toward better management for our ocean resources.”
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 population was first listed under the Endangered Species Act more than 20 years ago, and during that time the federal government and conservation agencies 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.
“Instead of attacking the science, it's time for Alaska's fishing industry to start thinking about what can be done to prevent fur seals and other fish-eating species from joining sea lions on the endangered list,” said John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director, Greenpeace. “The court's decision to uphold protections is great news for endangered Steller sea lions. There's no reason why we can't have both productive commercial fisheries and a healthy ecosystem, but we won't be able to do that unless decisions are based on the best available science and a precautionary approach.”