(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.
Fishing significantly alters the marine ecosystem by reducing fish populations to as much as 60 percent lower than historic levels; depleting certain stocks of fish in certain areas; and “disrupting the normal schooling behavior of the prey species,” making it more difficult for Steller sea lions to find and catch prey, according to the complaint.
The National Marine Fisheries Service in 2010 issued a biological opinion concluding that “ongoing federal authorization of the North Pacific groundfish fisheries [is] likely to jeopardize the continued existence and recovery of the Western population of Steller sea lions and adversely modify the species’ designated critical habitat,” the complaint states.
Noting that a few Steller sea lion subpopulations have fared well in areas with strict fishing restrictions, the agency limited the fishing of Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in the central Aleutian Islands and banned it in the western Aleutians.
Though the 2010 interim final rule survived legal challenge from Alaska and commercial fishing interests, the Federal Court criticized the National Marine Fisheries Service for preparing an environmental assessment instead of a NEPA-compliant environmental impact statement and ordered it to complete the study by March 2014.
But the draft impact statement included a preferred alternative that would reopen Pollock fishing in the Aleutian Islands for the first time since 1999 and allow for significantly more Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fishing in and near Steller sea lion critical habitat than the interim final rule, including areas that were once off-limits to such fishing, the complaint states.
Moreover, the groups say, the biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service in April 2014 was condemned by many of its own scientists as “fundamentally flawed” because it relied on incomplete and inadequate Steller sea lion telemetry and sighting data.
Despite criticism from the plaintiffs and others questioning the opinion’s scientific integrity, the Service incorporated the opinion into its draft and final impact statements and issued the final rule in November.
“The 2014 BiOp is premised on an assumption that competition between the fisheries and Steller sea lions is only likely if Steller sea lion foraging activity and fishing activity overlap to a high degree in all four potential respects – time, space, depth, and size of prey – and a conclusion that there is not sufficient overlap in the Aleutian Islands fisheries to jeopardize Steller sea lions or adversely modify their critical habitat. The BiOp’s key assumptions and conclusions on overlap are unsupported, disputed by agency and other scientists, and reverse previous analyses by NMFS without adequate explanation or justification,” the complaint states.
The 2014 opinion’s conclusion that increased fishing will not harm Steller sea lions because there is not enough overlap does not pass muster because the opinion “does not identify what degree of overlap would appreciably reduce the species’ prospects for survival or recovery or adversely modify its critical habitat,” the complaint adds.
It also ignored data from the 2010 opinion indicating that restrictions on groundfish fishing correlate with improved Steller sea lion numbers, and claimed there was no data to analyze the birth rate for the western and central Aleutian Island populations though this statistic could be calculated using the pup/non-pup ratios used in the 2010 opinion, the groups say.
“The 2014 BiOp therefore is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law because it fails to consider relevant factors, offers an explanation that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, and fails to use the best available science as required,” the complaint states.
The groups seek an injunction, want the court to declare the defendants in violation of the Endangered Species Act and NEPA, and ask it to vacate the 2014 biological opinion, final environmental impact survey and final rule.
They are represented by Colin C. O’Brien with Earthjustice.
- Shawne Merriman