The ban on trawl fishing in critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions, ordered last month by a federal court in Seattle, is set to take effect at noon Pacific time today, August 8th. The injunction affects all North Pacific groundfish trawl fisheries managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and is the result of a lawsuit filed by Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and Sierra Club. The affected fishing grounds are in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.
“This injunction will give Steller sea lions what they really need: protection from the industrial groundfish trawl fleet in the habitat essential to their survival,” said Mike Hagler, Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Manager. “NMFS simply has not done enough to protect this endangered species.”
On January 25 District Court Judge Thomas Zilly held NMFS to be in continuing violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for failing to prepare an adequate comprehensive biological opinion examining the cumulative effects of North Pacific groundfish fishing on Steller sea lions. On March 30 plaintiffs asked the court to bar all groundfish trawling from sea lion critical habitat until NMFS meets these obligations. The Court granted that motion on July 20.
“This action is the result of a long and consistent pattern by NMFS of disregarding its obligations under the Endangered Species Act,” said Janis Searles, Staff Attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, one of two law firms representing the plaintiffs. “We hope that the agency will now pay as much attention to complying with environmental laws as it has to getting the fish out.”
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 western stock as 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. In the process, thousands of tons of other species of fish are wasted as unwanted bycatch. These groundfish are the 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 crucial 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. In December of 1998, NMFS determined that the pollock fishery jeopardizes the continued existence of the Steller sea lion and adversely modifies its critical habitat.
“This is a difficult time for those whose livelihoods depend on fishing, but NMFS bears the responsibility for putting fishermen in this position,” said Jack Sterne, Staff Attorney for Trustees for Alaska, the other law firm representing plaintiffs. “NMFS assured the industry that its actions were legal. Unfortunately, the agency misled them.”
“We understand that this injunction may have a greater impact on smaller vessels in the shore-based fleet and are concerned about that. We would support an economic assistance package for those fishermen to offset any losses. In the long run, our goal is a sustainable fishery and a healthy environment,” said Phil Kline, Fisheries Policy Director for American Oceans Campaign.
The government has not yet announced whether it will appeal the decision.