Recovery plan issued for Alaska Steller sea lions

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2008

ANCHORAGE - A 325-page plan issued Wednesday for Alaska sea lions lists dozens of actions needed for the animals to recover.

The National Marine Fisheries Service recovery plan is a good one, but also is notable for what it lacks, said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

For example, the plan does not call for increased regulation to curtail the Bering Sea fishery, even though it identifies the fishery as a potentially large threat to sea lions in the competition for food, he said.

The plan also treats too lightly the fact that sea lions are disappearing from the islands off San Francisco and fails to plan effectively for the effects of climate change, he said.

"It is a status quo plan, not a recovery plan," Cummings said. "Given the sea lions' habitat is already changing as dramatically as any place on earth, you can't talk about the future, which a recovery plan does, without squarely addressing what that will look like 30 years from now."

Several commercial fishing groups could not immediately be reached for comment when called after normal business hours.

The plan looks at the eastern and western populations of Steller sea lions in Alaska. It will cost more than $430 million for the western stock to fully recover, the plan says. The recovery cost for the eastern stock is about $1 million.

It finds no substantial threats to the eastern stock stretching from southeast Alaska to California. Those are increasing at approximately 3 percent a year.

The problems are with the western population, extending from the eastern Gulf of Alaska to the western Aleutian Islands and beyond. Those sea lions are listed as endangered.

The plan, overall, is a good one, Cummings said. It provides a strong analysis of the impacts of commercial fishing on sea lions and properly identifies fishing as a significant potential threat, he said.

NMFS held to that conclusion despite intense pressure from the fishing industry to weaken the link between commercial fishing and the decline of sea lions, he said.

While not calling for more, the plans says the current level of fishery management measures to protect sea lions should be maintained. It also calls for a program to assess the impact of commercial fishing, as well as the threat coming from killer whales and climate change - all described as having potentially high impacts on the animals.

Lisa Rotterman, Steller sea lion coordinator for NMFS in Anchorage, said the plan clearly identifies what is needed for sea lions to recover. It also is clear in the need for more research not only on the status of sea lions but also potential threats, she said.

"It is acknowledged that there is information that is needed and that there is a need to continue closely monitoring Steller sea lions, making sure we get good information about their trends, distribution, health and essential habitat characteristics," Rotterman said.

The agency, which last issued a recovery plan in 1992, said it reviewed more than 8,000 public comments and consulted a broad variety of experts in coming up with the revised plan.

Alaska's Steller sea lions were listed as threatened in 1990 because of substantial declines in the western population. In 1997, the western population was reclassified as endangered after the two populations were found to be distinct. The eastern population remained threatened and to this day is increasing, estimated most recently at between 46,000 and 58,000 animals.

Between 2000 and 2004, the western population increased at about 3 percent a year - the first increases since the 1970s. But recent surveys show they could be declining slightly. Numbers now are estimated at about 45,000 animals, or about a 70 percent decline.

The rate of decline was rapid in the 1980s. It was attributed to deaths that were incidental to commercial fishing when it was legal for fishermen to protect their gear and catch by shooting sea lions.

After fishery regulations were put in place to protect sea lions and help with their recovery, the rate of decline for the western population decreased from 15 percent to 5 percent a year.

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