ANCHORAGE - In what may be the most intense, well-funded investigation ever undertaken into a single species, scientists launched more than 150 studies this year to find out why the Steller sea lion population crashed and remains low.
During the past 40 years, the population plunged more than 80 percent in Western Alaska from almost 180,000 animals in the late 1960s to fewer than 30,000. The official listing of this western stock as endangered has threatened Alaska's $1 billion groundfish industry.
That conflict, as much as the biological implications of a species' slide toward extinction, has spurred Congress to act.
Last month, Congress appropriated $40 million for Steller studies in 2002, boosting federal funding to more than $80 million in just two years.
The flood of money has generated laboratory experiments and field studies by hundreds of scientists spread among 25 government agencies, academic institutions and groups.
"I don't think there's anything really to compare it to," said Bob Small, director of the state's marine mammal program and head of the 20-member recovery team formed under the federal Endangered Species Act. "As for putting money toward a specific species and its specific interactions, it's pretty unprecedented."
Veteran fisheries biologist Lowell Fritz, assigned by the National Marine Fisheries Service to oversee the projects, said the spending has ramped up from just under $5 million for Steller sea lion study last year.
Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who pushed for the funding, has made clear his hope that better knowledge of sea lions will help keep the valuable commercial fishery alive.
"Last year's research funds are already paying dividends, and new research continues to disprove the link between fishing and the decline in sea lion populations," he said in a written statement.
But several biologists say the research so far hasn't proved much except that sea lion biology is extremely complex. The things that affect sea lion survival - ocean conditions, food supply, predators - have changed over the decades, so the causes and effects are complicated.
"It's an unprecedented enigma," marine mammal biologist Lloyd Lowry told the Marine Mammal Commission in November. "Steller sea lion assessment is particularly problematic because there is no smoking gun."
The scope of the new research is daunting. At least 115 principal investigators have recruited 300 to 400 helpers to test six general hypotheses competition with commercial fishing, environmental change in the ocean, predation by killer whales and sharks, diseases, contaminants and mortality caused by people.
The new studies will build on previous sea lion research and take years to sort out, Fritz said.
Some of the most intriguing studies will look at the role played by small, silvery forage fish such as capelin, eulachon and sand lance, Fritz said.
"We're finding that they're a very important component of the food web, not only for fish that we like to eat, like halibut and pollock and cod, but they're also an important part of the diet for sea lions," Fritz said.
One of the most controversial issues has centered on how commercial fishing affects sea lion health. One experiment off Kodiak Island will control the level of commercial fishing in certain areas and then measure what happens to sea lions in the vicinity over time, Small said.
Don't expect a simple answer, Small said. "People need to recognize that it's a very complex system, and it's not one or the other."
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