ANCHORAGE - A judge has ruled the federal government must halt studies of threatened and endangered Steller sea lions because it did not properly assess how certain research techniques might harm the animals.
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The National Marine Fisheries Service approved permits for research activities that include hot branding and tissue sampling of thousands of sea lions each year, said the suit filed last year by the Humane Society of the United States.
"We have concerns about the lack of environmental review, the structure of the research and how it's being done," Jonathan Lovvorn, an attorney for the Humane Society, said Tuesday. "Our main goal is and has always been to have them evaluate the research before authorization. We want to see that happen."
Lovvorn said the agency needs to better evaluate different research techniques, which range from minimally invasive to lethal.
"We don't oppose research in order to benefit the Steller sea lion," Lovvorn said. "The question is are we doing that here in accordance with the law."
The federal agency failed to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act by not preparing an environmental impact statement, and must give up its research permits, according to the decision on Friday by U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in Washington, D.C.
The federal agency had issued permits that allowed researchers to attach tracking devices to more than 700 Steller sea lions, brand more than 2,900 and allowed for the incidental deaths of up to 60 of the animals a year, according to court documents.
The permits do not authorize the intentional killing of any Steller sea lions for scientific study, the documents said.
Fisheries service scientists said their research techniques are not harming the overall Steller sea lion population and are necessary to understanding the animals' unexplained decline and how to help them recover.
The research includes population monitoring and foraging and behavior patterns, said Kaja Brix, protected resources division director at the National Marine Fisheries Service's Alaska region office.
"The lack of ability to do the research certainly will have an impact as far as maintaining continuity in our research program and other entities in the state," she said. "They may have to abandon those studies for the time being and resume them once permits are reinstated."
The agency will have to revoke research permits from federal, state and non-government agencies studying Steller sea lions, including the Alaska SeaLife Center, North Pacific Universities Consortium, state Department of Fish and Game and the Aleutians East Borough.
Brix said the agency is already conducting an environmental impact statement, but it could be a year before it's completed.
The Steller sea lion habitat roughly follows the rim of the North Pacific Ocean from northern Japan to the south coast of Alaska. The animals also live on California's Channel Islands.
The number of Steller sea lions in the western stock dropped from about 200,000 originally to 35,000 animals in 2002, federal fisheries scientists estimate. Scientists do not know the original population level of the genetically distinct eastern group, but as of 2002 there were 31,000 animals, with numbers on the rise.