A Federal Court today ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must implement immediate and significant changes to the Alaska groundfish fisheries in order to protect endangered Steller sea lions. Today's decision by Judge Thomas Zilly, in response to a motion for an injunction filed March 30 by Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and Sierra Club in their lawsuit against NMFS, halts trawl fishing for groundfish species in endangered Steller sea lion designated critical habitat.
"The court has done what NMFS would not: give the Steller sea lion a fighting chance against the industrial groundfish trawl fleet," said Mike Hagler, Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Manager. "NMFS must now stop dragging its feet, and start working to prevent the extinction of this endangered species in the long term."
On January 25 District Court Judge Thomas Zilly ruled that NMFS was in continued violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for failing to prepare a comprehensive biological opinion examining the cumulative effects of North Pacific groundfish trawling on Steller sea lions. On March 30 plaintiffs filed a motion with the court requesting that all groundfish trawling be excluded from sea lion critical habitat until NMFS meets these obligations.
"NMFS has fundamentally and consistently failed to meet its legal obligation to protect the environment from the trawl fleet," said Janis Searles, Staff Attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "Fortunately for the Steller sea lion, the Court today recognized what NMFS has refused to: the scientific record shows that trawling in critical habitat poses a real threat to Steller sea lions and must be halted until NMFS fully assesses the impacts of these fisheries."
Steller sea lion populations in Alaska have dropped dramatically in the past 30 years. In parts of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, the endangered western stock has plummeted by 80-90%. NMFS first listed the population as threatened under the ESA in 1991, and reclassified the status of the western stock to endangered in 1997, acknowledging that extinction could occur in the foreseeable future.
This drop coincides with the development of massive groundfish trawl fisheries in these same areas since the 1960s. Trawling is a fishing practice that involves towing large nets behind the vessel in pursuit of large volumes of groundfish, such as pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel, and which claims many other species of fish as unwanted bycatch. These same groundfish also serve as primary prey for Steller sea lions and other marine mammals and seabirds. Food limitation is the leading explanation for the sea lion's decline, and scientists point to the trawl fisheries as having the greatest potential impact on prey availability for Steller sea lions.
Steller sea lion critical habitat was established in 1993, and includes aquatic regions out to 20 nautical miles around terrestrial rookeries and haulouts, as well as three distinct aquatic areas in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska that are known to be essential feeding areas for sea lions. Critical habitat is defined under the Endangered Species Act as areas that are "essential to the conservation of the species". These same areas are also targeted by the groundfish trawl industry, with as much as 50-80% of recent trawl fishery catches of key sea lion prey species taken from areas designated as Steller sea lion critical habitat.
"This injunction won't stop fishing, but it will protect critical habitat from trawling," said Phil Kline, Fisheries Policy Director for American Oceans Campaign. "Our goal in this litigation is to move the agency toward a truly sustainable fishery that maintains a healthy environment. This is a significant step on that path."
Today's action stems from a lawsuit filed in April 1998 by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and Sierra Club against NMFS for violations of the ESA and National Environmental Policy Act.