Federal regulators should review the eastern population of Steller sea lions to decide if they can be taken off the threatened species list, suggests a draft plan released Wednesday by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
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The change could affect major projects, such as the proposed road out of Juneau and the Kensington gold mine.
The eastern Steller sea lion population - from California to Cape Suckling, east of Prince William Sound - has more than doubled in the last 25 to 30 years, and is now estimated at 46,000 animals.
In the last decade, four new rookeries have established along Southeast Alaska's outer coast.
"It's a good indication that the (eastern) population is doing great," said Bob Small, chairman of the Steller sea lion recovery team, which published the draft revised federal Steller sea lion recovery plan on Wednesday after five years of work on the plan.
Other rookeries have disappeared or declined along the California coast, where the population is stable but not growing.
"The real problems are in California," said Linda Behnken, of Sitka, who served on the Steller sea lion recovery team as a commercial fishing representative.
Public comment on sea lion recovery plan
Deadline: July 24.
Address comments to: Kaja Brix, Assistant regional administrator, Protected Resources Division, Alaska Region, NMFS, Attn: Ellen Walsh.
By e-mail: SSLRP@noaa.gov, including in the subject line "Sea Lion Recovery Plan."
By regular mail: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802.
Hand delivery: Federal Building, 709 W. Ninth Street, Juneau.
By fax: (907) 586-7012.
The recovery plan suggests a careful watch of California rookeries and haulouts, and monitoring of the entire eastern Steller sea lion population for numbers, mortality and other trends for as long as 10 years after the potential delisting.
Delisting the eastern population would have one significant effect in Southeast Alaska: Federal and state agencies would no longer need to consult under the Endangered Species Act regulations on major projects - such as the Juneau access project or the Kensington Mine - that could affect sea lions.
In both cases of the mine and the proposed highway, the National Marine Fisheries Service eventually determined under its Endangered Species Act regulations that the projects would not significantly harm the Steller sea lion population. The recovery team, though, said continued pressure from wilderness development could cause sea lions to abandon haulouts.
Such projects would still be scrutinized under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prevents harassment or killing of sea lions or marine mammals, with some exceptions, such as Native subsistence hunting.
Steller sea lions were originally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, primarily due to their severe decline in Western Alaska, blamed partially on large-scale fishing practices.
But in 1997, federal regulators split the east and western Steller sea lions into two distinct groups. The eastern sea lions were retained as threatened and the western sea lions were changed to endangered status.
Despite recent growth in the western Steller sea lion population, the draft recovery plan states that it remains unclear whether Steller sea lion reproduction has improved.
In Southeast Alaska and Canada, "The (eastern) population is probably (improving) after a lot of exploitation that took place, especially in the 1950s and 1960s," said Small, who is also marine mammals coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Until passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, it was legal for fishermen to protect their gear and their catch by shooting Steller sea lions.
"It was open game for people to shoot them," Behnken said.
Each year between 1993 and 1997, British Columbia aquaculture operations were legally killing up to 12 sea lions that interfered with their fish farms.
The fact that eastern Steller sea lions are doing well enough to contemplate delisting will come as a relief to Southeast Alaska fishermen, Behnken said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service initially published a Stellar sea lion recovery plan in 1992 but the plan was nullified when Steller sea lions were split into two distinct subpopulations, east and west, in 1997.
The draft plan is out for comment until July 24.
Delisting could only occur after:
The recovery plan is finalized.
A scientific status review of the eastern population shows that they meet recovery objectives.
A draft and final rulemaking process is completed.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.