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Steller sea lions get safety net from trawling
When it comes to protecting Alaska's sea lions, environmental activist Janis Searles has done a stellar job.
Since 1998, Searles, an attorney with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, has led the environmental community's effort to force The National Marine Fisheries Service to take appropriate action to prevent the extinction of Steller sea lions.
Recently, the NMFS released a long-awaited biological opinion on the effects of the North Pacific groundfish fishery on Steller sea lions, marking a turning point for conservation in the North Pacific.
The recommendation follows a July court order by federal Judge Thomas Zilly, who ruled that the NMFS was in continued violation of the Endangered Species Act for failing to prepare a comprehensive assessment examining the cumulative effects of North Pacific groundfish trawling on Steller sea lions.
"This is the first time the NMFS has attempted to examine the effects of a fishery in an ecosystem context," Searles said. "I think this is a cutting-edge case in the history of the Endangered Species Act."
The biological opinion is the centerpiece of litigation launched by environmentalists over the past decade to lessen the impact of trawl fishing on the North Pacific Ocean ecosystem.
The recent decline of Steller sea lions may be the first concrete example of such a disturbance, environmentalists claim. Just as the spotted owl is an indicator species of a healthy forest ecosystem, the Steller sea lion, a top predator on the North Pacific food chain, acts as an indicator of the overall health of the ocean's ecosystem, they say.
Between 1970 and 1996, Alaska's Steller sea lion populations have declined by 80 percent, the biological opinion found. Since then, the population has experienced an additional 18 percent decline.
According to NMFS administrator Penny Dalton, young sea lions are suffering from "nutritional stress." While several hypotheses, including climate change, have been put forth on the causes of that stress, the "best available science" reveals that trawling activity is depleting vital food sources for the seals, Dalton said.
Energy-rich spawning pollock and other groundfish are essential to pregnant or nursing sea lions, especially during the late-winter months, explained Ken Stump of Greenpeace. Depletion of this important food source may cause females to abort fetuses or abandon nursing pups before they are able to feed themselves.
The biological opinion calls for a variety of seasonal closures and catch limitations that would reduce the impact of fishing on the sea lions' diet, indicating a distinctly new approach from the NMFS to the management of commercial fishing in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and along the Aleutian Islands.
While the NMFS believes the proposed actions will prevent adverse modification of critical habitat and reduce the impact of groundfish fisheries to a level that would allow for recovery of the endangered sea lions, the federal recommendation is likely to place an unwelcome cut on the nation's biggest commercial seafood harvests, which contributes $1 billion annually to the state of Alaska.
According to the NMFS, the economic impact of the closures could cost the state up to $200 million a year.
Until now, most endangered species regulations that have affected fisheries involve the direct take of the endangered species.
"NMFS is not only recognizing the need to protect endangered species but also to protect critical habitat," Searles said. "There has been a tendency for the federal agencies to not treat them as distinct standards. Protecting critical habitat and considering the impact of actions on critical habitat goes part and parcel with protecting the species."
Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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