Political pressure from members of Congress may thwart a plan to prevent the extinction of the world's largest sea lion. An announcement from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on new fishery management measures to protect the endangered Steller sea lion in Alaska is expected during next week's North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) meeting in Anchorage.
In meetings and in a letter to Commerce Secretary Daley, members of Congress are pressuring the agency to let politics override the normal scientific process. "[The Endangered Species Act] does not require your agency to make decisions in a vacuum," wrote Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK), Frank Murkowski (R-AK), Slade Gorton (R-WA), and Congressman Don Young (R-AK). The letter demands that the final decisions about the sea lions' future be handed to the NPFMC, a political body dominated by the trawl fishing industry. In addition to the letter, staff from their Congressional offices met with NMFS biologists before Thanksgiving to convince the scientists to rewrite their sea lion "biological opinion."
"There's a good reason why it's called a biological opinion, not a political opinion," said Heather Weiner, a policy analyst at Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, one of two non-profit environmental law firms suing to protect the sea lions. If the biological opinion declares that groundfish fishery is "likely to jeopardize the continued existence" of the Steller sea lion, then NMFS must propose management actions to prevent further damage to the species and begin its recovery.
Closed-door meetings between NMFS and trawl industry representatives have also taken place in Alaska. "The trawl fleet has brought intense political pressure on the agency to allow continued overexploitation of the North Pacific, despite the impacts to sea lions, harbor seals, and to the long-term health of the fisheries," said Doug Ruley, an Earthjustice attorney in Alaska.
The Steller sea lion is one of many ocean predators losing the race with industrial fisheries in the North Pacific ocean. Last April, on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Trustees for Alaska filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) take action to prevent the collapse of the North Pacific ecosystem.
"Fishermen, sea lions, and all of us need a scientific plan for a sustainable fishery," said Sue Sabella, Oceans Director for Greenpeace US. "NMFS is responsible for managing the nation's fisheries for the nation, not just the Alaska and Washington congressional delegations," she added.
Conservationists are urging NMFS to act aggressively to halt damage to sea lions and the Bering Sea ecosystem by:
1. prohibiting trawling in all critical habitat surrounding sea lion rookeries and haulouts;
2. dramatically reducing the catches of pollock, Atka mackerel, and other groundfish essential for sea lion survival in all other sea lion critical habitat including at-sea foraging areas;
3. reducing the overall catches of pollock and other groundfish, particularly the catches of spawning pollock; and
4. spreading the remaining catch over the entire year and over broader areas of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, rather than allowing the catch to be concentrated as it is now.
The vast waters of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska once teemed with one of the world's largest concentrations of sea lions, fur and harbor seals, and seabirds. Today, intensive industrial trawling in the North Pacific seas is depleting fish populations, harming habitat and unnecessarily disrupting the ocean web of life. This industrial-scale fishing also takes food away from the ocean's top-of-the-food-chain predators, including the now endangered Steller sea lion.
Steller Sea Lions Declining
- The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska historically have supported some of the largest and most diverse concentrations of marine mammals and seabirds in the world. Steller sea lions, seals, and seabirds all have declined dramatically since the 1960s. All of these declines appear to be related to food limitations.
- Steller sea lions in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska are plummeting toward extinction. The Western stock of Steller sea lions has plunged from an estimated population in 1965 of about 230,000 animals, including pups, to 68,000 in 1985, to 43,200 in 1995, a decline of 81% in three decades.
- Based on trend counts, centers of sea lion abundance in the eastern Aleutians (Ugamak Island) and central Gulf of Alaska (Marmot Island) have declined by as much as 90%, while the "Kenai-to-Kiska" index of population has declined from 140,000 adults and juveniles to only 16,259 in 1998. Scientists have recorded a 13.1% decline from 1994-1998.
Industrial Fisheries Implicated
- The declines in sea lions, seals, and other predators coincide with the development of high-volume trawl fisheries in the same times and areas. The declines in Steller sea lions began in the eastern Aleutian Islands in the early 1970s, where a massive trawl fishery for pollock was concentrated at the time, and moved eastward into the central Gulf of Alaska and westward along the Aleutian chain as large-scale groundfish trawling moved into those regions.
- No declines in sea lions have occurred in southeast Alaska, where no high-volume groundfish trawling occurs.
- NMFS has concluded that lack of available food is likeliest explanation for the declines in Steller sea lions. Every marine study over the past 25 years has found that sea lions depend heavily on pollock, Atka mackerel, and other groundfish targeted by the massive groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.