The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has failed to meet its obligations to protect endangered Steller sea lions and their habitat, the Federal District Court in the Western District of Washington ruled yesterday. The ruling, which sends the decision back to the agency for further analysis, is the most recent decision in a lawsuit filed in 1998 by Earthjustice and Trustees for Alaska, on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and the Sierra Club, and was hailed by the plaintiffs.
“From the beginning, this case has been about improving the management of our oceans, and protection for endangered Steller sea lions and their habitat,” said Dr. Charlotte de Fontaubert, Greenpeace Oceans Campaign Coordinator. “This court victory is a major step to insure that federal regulators take the necessary steps required under law to provide for comprehensive ecosystem-based management of our fisheries.”
“We can continue to have vibrant fisheries and protect our marine mammals like Stellers but we must have better management and NMFS must have the resources to do so,” said Jim Ayers, Director of the North Pacific office of Oceana. “That's what Americans expect, what the law requires, and what the court has ordered.”
Steller sea lion populations in western Alaska have declined by almost 90 percent in the past few decades, along with similar declines in populations of other marine mammals and seabirds. These declines are indications of serious biological problems in the North Pacific.
The ruling addresses a biological opinion prepared in 2000, and a more recent biological opinion that currently governs the fisheries. The court concluded that the current fishing plan is illegal because the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to evaluate the effects of fishing on sea lions and their habitat. Although the court upheld the earlier biological opinion, the Court remanded the current opinion to the agency to prepare a proper analysis.
In the court's own words:
“In short, the 2001 BiOp does not contain a viable analysis of cause and effect, which is exactly what the [Endangered Species Act] requires. This failure is fatal to the 2001 BiOp.” Court Order at page 33.
“The Court concludes that the 2001 BiOp's finding of no adverse modification of critical habitat and no jeopardy to the continued existence of Steller sea lions is arbitrary and capricious because the necessary analysis of the impact of the [fishing plan] on Steller sea lions, their prey, and their critical habitat was not performed.” Court Order at pages 33-34.
“We challenged the 2001 BiOp because NMFS approved a plan with weaker protections, sponsored by the industry, without adequately looking at the impact on sea lions. In yesterday's ruling, the Court said this was illegal,” said de Fontaubert.
“We must do a better job of understanding and protecting our oceans' resources otherwise we are all in jeopardy,” said Ayers of Oceana. “We hope NMFS realizes that by bringing people together to resolve these problems, we can do so without litigation.”
The plaintiffs said they would work to ensure that NMFS completes the work necessary to analyze fishing impacts on Steller sea lions, their habitat, and other marine resources. “The court gave the agency a blueprint for complying with the Endangered Species Act. We hope the agency will follow it, and that this long-running litigation can come to an end,” said Janis Searles, staff attorney with Earthjustice.