Late last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a final rule that weakens protections for the endangered western population of Steller sea lions. The rule would open up previously closed areas around the western Aleutian Islands in the Northern Pacific Ocean—including critical habitat areas that have been closed for more than 15 years—for increased fishing of pollock, Pacific cod, and Atka mackerel, which are all critical food sources for Steller sea lions. The decision comes even as the population continues to decline significantly in the western Aleutian Islands.
“The Fisheries Service has prioritized large-scale industrial fishing above the health of our oceans. The new rule reverses course on decades of science, government policy, and court decisions. This new rule will allow factory trawlers to take millions of fish away from the areas where Steller sea lions need to feed on them the most,” Oceana senior scientist and campaign manager Jon Warrenchuk said in a press release.
As the largest sea lion and fourth largest pinniped—just behind walruses and elephant seals—Steller sea lions are top predators in the North Pacific that can grow to an impressive near-11 feet long. But Steller sea lions have struggled during the industrial age of development in Alaska. Until the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Steller sea lions were wantonly shot by the thousands. While this wasteful killing largely ended, the subsequent rise of industrial fisheries started outcompeting Steller sea lions for fish, and the population continued to decline.
The extent of this decline and threat of extinction led NMFS to list the Steller's sea lion as threatened range-wide under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in April 1990. In the 1990s, the decline continued in the Western portions of the range leading NMFS to divide the species into two distinct population segments (DPS), Western and Eastern, and list the Western DPS as endangered in 1997. By 2000, the western population had declined by 80 percent and reached its lowest point with an estimated 42,500 animals left.
Just four years ago, NMFS determined that reduced fishery catches and closed areas were needed to prevent industrial fishing from jeopardizing the endangered western population of Steller sea lions. In response, fishing companies and the state of Alaska sued to overturn the protections. Two court opinions upheld the protections and the agency’s reasoning as consistent with the law. Despite that ruling, the Fisheries Service enacted a new rule to allow factory trawlers and longliners to remove over 30 million pounds of fish that are Steller sea lion prey in the region—in areas where these sea lions are faring the worst.
“We had hoped that the Fisheries Service would show the leadership needed to find long term and sustainable solutions to management in the Aleutians. Instead of giving protection measures a chance to work, the Fisheries Service has opened the floodgates,” Warrenchuk said.
Oceana has pushed for the conservation of Steller sea lions through a holistic approach, including advocating for ecosystem-based management, minimizing impacts of commercial fisheries, and participating in talks with NMFS and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. You can learn more about Oceana’s work here.