Eastern Steller sea lions no longer endangered, feds say

Dan Joling | Associated PressAssociated Press
A Steller sea lion, also known as the northern sea lion, lobby's for some space on Buoy #9, a popular hangout in the Valdez Arm of Prince William Sound on Friday, July 1, 2011. BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Steller sea lions from Alaska's Panhandle to California's Channel Islands have increased their numbers enough to be removed from the endangered species list, according to the federal agency that oversees them.

The eastern population of the marine mammal has increased from about 34,000 in 1997 to 70,000 in 2010, according to federal officials.

The recommendation Wednesday from the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, does not affect the endangered status of the western population, which includes sea lions throughout the Aleutian Islands.

Fishing restrictions put in place there to aid sea lions were challenged by commercial fishing interests and the state of Alaska.

"This proposal reflects the continued recovery of the eastern population of Steller sea lions and the strong conservation partnership among NOAA Fisheries, the states, the fishing industry, and other stakeholders," said Jim Balsiger, Alaska regional administrator, in the announcement.

The federal government listed Steller sea lions in 1990 after the population declined. The agency blamed shooting by people who did not want sea lions competing for fish.

According to the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources web site, Steller sea lions feed on cod, herring, mackerel, pollock, rockfish and salmon, as well as squid and octopus.

The recommendation comes after the agency began a review of the sea lions' status in June 2010 and received two petitions, one from Alaska and one from Oregon and Washington, asking that the species no longer be listed as threatened, according to the announcement.

The formal recommendation to remove the protections begins a 60-day comment period that closes June 18. A final decision, the agency said, will be made within a year. If the eastern population comes off the threatened species list, the agency said, it will monitor the population for 10 years.

The western population remains imperiled, according to the agency. Officials at a court hearing in December said a 2008 survey estimated 49,000 sea lions live in the western Aleutians, down from 250,000 in the early 1970s. The state of Alaska and seafood organizations contend that fishing restrictions are unnecessary because the western population is growing by 1 percent to 1.5 percent a year. However, an lawyer for the agency at the court hearing said population improvements have not been statistically significant.

An Anchorage federal judge last month ruled that the restrictions should remain in place but ordered the agency to complete by March 2014 an environmental impact statement with the chance for public comment.

Associated Press