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Steller sea lions in deep straits in Alaska

Steller sea lions are caught in the middle of a conservation argument between commercial fishing interests and environmental advocacy groups  

The Steller sea lion, an unassuming marine mammal protected under the Endangered Species Act, is in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons. Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles wants President Clinton to overturn a federal court ruling designed to protect the animal.

Only a few months ago, the Steller was the focus of environmentalists' outrage when dozens of the sea mammals were discovered slaughtered on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Over the course of the year, the unobtrusive sea lions have become a friction point between commercial fishing interests and environmental advocacy groups.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has known for more than a decade that sea lions are lured by thousands of salmon that cluster in fish-farm pens along the Pacific Coast. To address the problem of break-ins, the department issues licenses that permit farmers to shoot marine mammal predators if they threaten their stock.

But officials were caught unawares when a pit of dozens of dead sea lions was found on Clayoquot Sound on the western coast of Vancouver Island. Further investigation revealed that the animals were killed by proprietors of a fish-farming business that received a license by the DFO.

The discovery brought to light a macabre trend: a drastic upsurge in penniped killings. Over the past 10 years, salmon farmers have shot nearly 5,000 marine mammals, including 300 Stellers, natives of the North Pacific.

A shortage of pollock and herring stocks is driving sea lions to infiltrate salmon nets where plentiful stock is sitting prey.

Clashes between fish farmers and the hungry intruders often result in expensive damage to farm property and more sea lion deaths. Marine biologists and conservationists fear the trend bodes ill for the Steller, whose population has declined sharply since 1965. Today, Stellers number only 10 to 20 percent of their population 30 years ago.

Stellers have been healthy in British Columbia for decades, numbering nearly 5,000, and the DFO saw no reason for concern when it introduced licenses 11 years ago. Since then, however, the number of slayings has increased dramatically.

"In the last few years we've noticed an increase from 25 to 30 animals killed per year to over double that number for both species (California and Steller sea lions)," said Ron Ginetz, aquaculture specialist for the DFO.

Scientists believe sea lions are invading fish farms because of a diminishing supply of the mammal's primary source of food. "Herring and hake populations have been hit and miss on the West Coast, which is driving the sea lions to look for food elsewhere. The fish farms are in areas where the sea lions normally feed on other fish," said Ginetz.

But environmentalists say the fish farms are poorly designed and located in areas that attract predators. "Any seal or sea lion swimming by can see the salmon – it's like putting a dinner bell out there," said Valerie Langer of Friends of Clayoquot Sound, a Vancouver Island-based environmental advocacy group.

Environmentalists blame the location of fish farms for attracting Steller sea lions  

Langer believes the fish farms will be a magnet for sea lions as long as the aquaculture industry refuses to move pens away from coastal areas.

"(Fish farmers) should be able to change their technology so that they wouldn't need and want to shoot lions. (They should) actually make nets lion-proof to begin with," said Phil Klein, fisheries program director for the American Oceans Campaign.

The Sierra Club and the Friends of Clayoquot Sound are lobbying to have the fish farms moved inland, away from temptation. There are approximately 100 salmon farms in southern British Columbia, all of which use open sea pens.

American marine biologists worry that the Canadian killings might affect the overall population of Stellers. Little is known about the migratory patterns of the sea lions, but scientists believe there is considerable exchange between American and Canadian species.

"Our concern is that the number of animals reported is not the same as the actual number killed," said Tim Regan, Steller sea lion recovery coordinator for the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Juneau, Alaska. "Under most circumstances people tend to underreport. It's hard to know what the impact would be at this point."

Though they number nearly 40,000, only about 500 Stellers are left in California. In 1990, the eastern species of Stellers was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 1997, the western species, which resides mainly in northern Alaska and Russia, was listed as endangered.

Intensive industrial trawling in Alaska has depleting fish stocks that have traditionally been the Steller's core food source, further threatening the animal's survival.

In July, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle ordered an injunction to prevent trawling in the western Alaska waters that surround Steller rookeries. The decision was made after environmentalists charged that the National Marine Fisheries Service had failed to protect the endangered mammals.

In response to the outcry from Alaska's fisherman, Knowles said he will appeal the injunction with the help of the state's attorney general. Knowles also requested personal intervention from President Clinton.

"This injunction puts many communities of fisherman out of work by forcing them to fish 20 miles offshore in dangerous waters," said Bob King, Knowles' press secretary.

The DFO and NMFS are investigating new ways to protect Stellers while considering the interests of the commercial fishing and aquaculture industry.

"I'm trying to determine why some farms seem to be shooting a lot of sea mammals and some not. Our goal is to reduce the number of animals that have to be killed by finding solutions," said Peter Olesiak, a DFO research biologist.

Despite the Canadian government's response, some environmentalists say the effort is too little, too late. "This is a very piecemeal effort to address the bad press around the sea lion killings. The fish farm industry is not addressing the larger issues like the location of the farms, pollution, inadequate net pens and escaping fish," said Langer.

As the debate heats up in Alaska, the NMFS is working on a new "biological opinion" that will examine the potential threats, including commercial fishing, to the western Alaska Steller population. The American Oceans Campaign, one of the plaintiffs in the federal trial, has pledged to fight the governor's effort to appeal the decision.

"The governor would better serve his Alaska coastal communities by implementing an alternative management plan. He's continuing to defend a status quo system that is currently not working for the benefit of his coastal communities: It only benefits larger commercial vessels that are not from Alaska," said Klein.

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

Gwich'in Nation fights for caribou in Alaska
August 28, 2000
Sea lion deaths leave scientists swimming
March 3, 2000
Aleutian otters take a nosedive
July 6, 2000
Aerial wolf hunting flies again in Alaska
May 3, 2000

Alaska governor seeks to overturn no-trawl order
The scooper with a cause (audio)
U.S. judge orders fishing curbs to help sea lion
Judge calls sea lion protections inadequate
NMFS accused of waffling on sea lion protection
Groups file suit to protect Steller sea lion

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles
Friends of Clayoquot Sound
Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans
National Marine Fisheries Service
National Marine Mammal Laboratory
Marine Mammal Center
American Oceans Campaign

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