(CN) - Hundreds of endangered Steller sea lions may die from loss of prey and habitat if the federal government allows more industrial fishing in the Aleutian Islands, environmentalists claim in court.
Oceana and Greenpeace sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and two top federal fisheries officials on Dec. 23 in Anchorage Federal Court.
They claim the defendants' final rule allowing more industrial fishing in the western and central Aleutian Islands - critical habitat for the Steller sea lion - violates the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
"The final rule removes significant protections deemed necessary by defendants four years earlier to ensure compliance with the ESA," the complaint states. "Those protections were intended to reduce competition between large-scale commercial fisheries and endangered Steller sea lions for prey species in the western and central Aleutian Islands, where sea lion populations continue to decline. For more than two decades, the best available science has supported the need for an adoption of protective measures to limit intensive fishing within important Steller sea lion foraging areas."
In reducing protections for the sea lions, the government used "a novel scientific approach" that contravenes its previous conclusions and scientific analyses from more than a decade of biological opinions, the environmentalists say.
Also known as the northern sea lion, Steller sea lions are found in colder temperate to subarctic waters of the Pacific Ocean from northern Japan to California. They are the largest species in the eared seal family, with males typically growing up to 11 feet and weighing up to 2,500 lbs. and females growing up to 9½ feet long and weighing 770 lbs.
Characterized by light blond to reddish brown coats and long white whiskers, Steller sea lions primarily feed on fish such as cod and Atka mackerel as well as bivalves, squid, and gastropods. They come on shore to rest, molt, and breed, and can use their hind flippers to walk.
In response to petitions from several environmental groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed the Steller sea lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in1990 and established critical habitat for the species in 1993. In 1997, the agency split the species into two distinct population segments: the Eastern and Western populations.
Found in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, the Western population of Steller sea lion has lost 90 percent of its members since the 1950s, and had only 42,000 animals as of 2000. Its numbers continued to decline at an average of 7 percent a year from 2000 to 2012, according to the complaint.
Though federal protection put an end to legal hunting, the Western population's shrinking numbers still face threats from industrial fishing, illegal hunting, offshore oil and gas exploration, and being hit by ships and boats, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service's sea lion page.
Allowing more large-scale industrial fisheries in and near the Western Steller sea lion's critical habitat threatens their ability to recover and survive, the groups say.
Commercial fisheries in the Aleutians net more than 4 billion lbs. of fish a year, including many of the species that Steller sea lions eat as primary prey.