A major anti-environmental rider is being proposed that would prevent endangered Steller sea lions from receiving the protection of two of our Nation's basic federal environmental laws. The rider, proposed for the Commerce, State, Justice appropriations bill, is an industry-sponsored end-run around the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The rider would exempt the industrial scale North Pacific groundfish fisheries from compliance with the federal environmental laws for two years.
"This rider is a frontal assault on the Endangered Species Act," said Janis Searles of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "It strips away the protections endangered sea lions need and exempts the biggest fishery in America from compliance with the law."
A court order entered in July excludes groundfish trawl fishing from habitat identified by scientists as critical for the survival and recovery of endangered Steller sea lions while the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) attempts to comply with the ESA.
"For over two years, we've been trying to get NMFS to do its job," said Heather Weiner of Earthjustice. "Now, when the agency is finally about to release its analysis of the effects of the fisheries on endangered sea lions, this rider turns back the clock on protection and freezes fishery management for another two years."
Since the 1960s, the population of Steller sea lions has declined by over 80 percent. The decline continues today with an estimated average drop of over 5 percent each year during the 90s. In April 1998, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Trustees for Alaska filed a lawsuit on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign and Sierra Club. The suit sought to force NMFS to comply with the law, and take appropriate action to prevent the collapse of the North Pacific ecosystem and the extinction of the Steller sea lion.
The ESA requires NMFS to examine the effects of the North Pacific groundfish fisheries on endangered Steller sea lions. NMFS' most recent effort to meet this requirement failed miserably. In January 2000, a court determined that "meaningful analysis is virtually non-existent" and that "NMFS's analysis is admittedly incomplete and its conclusions inconclusive." Following this ruling, the court determined that NMFS "has not, and cannot, insure that continued fishing in designated critical habitat will not result in harm to endangered Steller sea lions." Because of NMFS' legal violation, the court was forced to exclude groundfish trawl fishing from designated critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions until NMFS complied with the law, which is has promised to do by October 31, 2000. The proposed rider will delay NMFS compliance with the law for at least two years, driving Steller sea lions that much closer to extinction. "The law says protect endangered Steller sea lions and the public's fisheries," said Janis Searles. "This rider allows industry to ignore the law."