Efforts by Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) to waive the Endangered Species Act (ESA) have failed. The endangered Steller sea lions, while still victims from large-scale, intensive trawl fishing, are no longer victim to a hostile effort from Stevens to suspend federal environmental laws for the sake of industrial fishing special interests.
"Senator Stevens played chicken with the ESA and lost," said Heather Weiner, Senior Legislative Counsel at the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "The integrity of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act remains intact for the time being. It remains to be seen if Steller sea lions survive as well."
"Decisions affecting the fate of endangered species and entire ecosystems should be based on sound science, not special interests," said Phil Kline of the American Oceans Campaign. "Attempting to torpedo our nation's most basic environmental laws is not only bad politics, it's just plain wrong."
Environmentalists say they expect the Secretary of Commerce to comply with the Endangered Species Act while jumping through the hoops set out by Stevens' rider.
Under the rider, the Secretary is still obliged to implement the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative required by the Biological opinion issued by NMFS on December 1, 2000. The Secretary must comply with the Endangered Species Act while also complying with Stevens' requirement that the agency minimize the impact on small boat Alaska fishermen and the processing industry, to the extent possible. The rider also prevents the Secretary from reducing the Total Allowable Catch of the fishery by more than 10%.
"We are concerned that the fishing industry may try to pressure the Secretary to delay implementation of the new conservation measures, using the roadblocks provided by Stevens in this rider," said Janis Searles, staff attorney for Earthjustice in Juneau, Alaska. " But we are hopeful that the agency will continue with its plan to protect sea lions from extinction, whether in this Administration or in the next one."
$20 million is also authorized for a pilot project to control Orca whales, which Stevens believes is the real culprit for the sea lions' decline. But Dr. Craig O. Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society and one of Alaska's leading experts on Orca whales called Stevens' assertion that Orcas are responsible for the decimation of Steller sea lions "unfounded."
Another $30 million is authorized for direct payments to individuals, businesses and "other entities."
Stevens held the budget bill hostage to his efforts to prevent the application of all federal environmental laws to the federal North Pacific groundfish fisheries, including implementation of the National Marine Fisheries Services' long-awaited biological opinion, which was released on December 1, 2000. Scientists concluded in the biological opinion 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 prescribed a Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA) aimed at reducing fishing impacts in the sea lions' critical habitat.
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 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.