ANCHORAGE - A new survey suggests the Steller sea lion population in Alaska is increasing for the first time in decades.
A June aerial survey of 84 places from the Gulf of Alaska to the Aleutian Island chain where the marine mammals regularly haul out found more than 19,300 adult and adolescent animals. That's about 5.5 percent more than the 18,300 counted two years ago at the same locations.
While the results are preliminary, they point in a good direction.
"This is the first good news we've had in 20-plus years," said biologist John Sease, who oversees the counts for the National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle.
The survey matches reports from working fishermen, who say they've seen more sea lions lately, said Al Birch, executive director of the Kodiak-based Alaska Draggers Association. The group represents 55 trawlers and long-liners from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
Steller sea lion numbers fell more than 80 percent during the past 25 years, confounding scientists for nearly two decades. The sharp declines in the population led to commercial fishing restrictions and environmental lawsuits. The animals were listed as endangered in 1997.
However, Sease and Bob Small, the leader of the recovery team organized under the federal Endangered Species Act, cautioned against reading too much into the findings.
"It's definitely great news," said Small, who also oversees marine mammal management for the state Department of Fish and Game. "But we need several years' worth of data before we can indeed say there's been a switch in the population trend."