A coalition of major environmental groups today delivered a letter to the White House urging the Clinton Adminstration to oppose any attempts by Congress to undermine critical Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Steller sea lions in Alaska. Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) has drafted an anti-environmental rider, destined for one of the remaining federal spending bills, that would block federal fishery managers from implementing recently-announced measures to protect endangered Steller sea lions from large-scale fishing efforts in the North Pacific. The Clinton Administration has told environmentalists that the president would veto any budget bill containing such a rider.
"By authoring a spending bill rider, Senator Stevens has proven that he is bent on putting short-term profits for big fishing interests ahead of the long-term survival of both Steller sea lions and the very coastal communities he professes to care about," said Heather Weiner, Senior Legislative Counsel of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "Anyone who truly wishes to save Steller sea lions, protect the North Pacific ecosystem and uphold the Endangered Species Act must oppose Senator Stevens' rider."
In a 500+ page, peer-reviewed biological opinion released December 1, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scientists concluded that federally-managed Alaska groundfish fisheries harm endangered Steller sea lions and their habitat. To mitigate the adverse effects described in the biological opinion, NMFS has prescribed a Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA) aimed at reducing fishing impacts in the sea lions' critical habitat. The RPA requires changes to only the federally-managed pollock, Atka mackerel, and Pacific cod fisheries.
Senator Stevens' rider as currently written would bar the use of federal funds to implement the RPA within Alaska's state waters. The rider would also delay implementation of the RPA, or any other new measures to protect Steller sea lions, in federal waters until yet another scientific review of the biological opinion is completed and the fishing industry-dominated North Pacific Fishery Management Council has developed its own plan for managing groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska.
"The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is largely to blame for the years of delay and denial that has led to the current situation," said Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner Niaz Dorry. "To put them in charge of the scientific review process is like putting cockroaches in charge of pest control."
In their letter to the White House, leaders representing 23 major environmental groups state that "any attempt to overturn the agency's biological conclusions or attempt to weaken the accompanying changes in management of the fisheries through stealth attacks in the FY 2001 budget would be an egregious assault on the Endangered Species Act and much-needed, scientifically-based conservation measures that would lead to more responsible stewardship of our nation's public resources."
"Senator Stevens' is attempting to throw the Endangered Species Act out the window even in the face of clear evidence that Steller sea lions are in peril due to intensive industrial fishing in their critical habitat," said Ted Morton, Policy Director for American Oceans Campaign. "It is frightening to think what other endangered species he may be willing to sacrifice in the future if he succeeds."
The population of the endangered Steller sea lion in the Gulf of Alaska is crashing, having dropped by more than 80 percent in the past 40 years (from 140,000 in 1960 to 16,000 today). The decline continues today with an estimated average drop of over 5 percent each year during the 90s.
Since the 1960s, the population of Steller sea lions has declined by over 80 percent. The decline continues, with an estimated average drop of over five-percent each year during the 90s. In April 1998, Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Trustees for Alaska, filed a lawsuit seeking to force the NMFS to comply with federal environmental laws. On December 1, 2000, in an effort to comply with the law, NMFS released its most recent biological opinion.