Big Win in Alaska: Courts Uphold Protections for Endangered Steller Sea Lions

by John Hocevar

January 25, 2012

For decades, it has been clear that unsustainable levels of fishing has not only impacted fish populations, but also the species that eat fish. In Alaska, factory fishing has removed much of the fish available to Steller sea lions and fur seals, at heavy costs. The National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed this recently, with an extensive analysis of the best available science known as a Biological Opinion. NMFS found that additional conservation measures were needed, and closed some of the waters around the Aleutian Islands to trawling.

The fishing industry and their friends in the Alaskan state government promptly sued NMFS, attacking NMFS scientists in the media and even before Congress. Greenpeace, Oceana and Earthjustice intervened on behalf of NMFS, supporting the science and making the case that the closures put in place were necessary but probably not enough. The courts sided with us, upholding the science and the new protections NMFS put in place.

We have come a long way since the last time we were in a courtroom to protect Steller sea lions from unsustainable fishing. After we sued NMFS in 1998 for failing to prevent fisheries from taking too much food away from sea lions, the courts agreed with us. More than a decade later, its nice to be able to support NMFS efforts.

Of course, there is still a long way to go. The measures put in place to prevent the extinction of Steller sea lions seem to have halted their decline in most places, but some parts of their range are still in very bad shape.

Perhaps worse still, NMFS seems to have learned very little from the experience with sea lions. It took a lawsuit and an Endangered Species Act listing and to force the agency to protect sea lions ten years ago. Meanwhile, nothing is being done to stop the steady decline of fur seals, which is clearly linked to the same problem of fisheries taking too much of their prey.

The battle continues.

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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