Steller Sea Lion Removed From Threatened Species list

Steller sea lion | Photo: Arthur Chapman/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Looks like it's sea lion news day here at ReWild: The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries wing (NOAA Fisheries) has decided to remove the eastern population of the Steller sea lion from protection as a Threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Steller sea lion, Eumetopias jubatus, is much larger than the common California sea lion, and can reach 11 feet in length and weigh more than a ton. The eastern population inhabits the Pacific coast from the Alaskan Panhandle to the Channel Islands, though only about 500 individuals live in California.

NOAA Fisheries says it estimates the animal's numbers have recovered from around 18,000 animals in 1979 to 70,174 in 2010. In that year the agency began formal review of the sea lion's Threatened status, and proposed delisting in 2012 after requests from the states of Oregon, Washington, and Alaska that the animals be stripped of their protection under the ESA.

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NOAA Fisheries, formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, is one of two federal agencies that administers and enforces the Endangered Species Act, the other being the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. NOAA Fisheries handles oceanic species and anadromous species such as salmon, while USFWS works with land and freshwater species.

Despite its delisting, the first of a marine mammal since the eastern North Pacific gray whale was taken off the list of threatened and endangered species in 1994, Steller sea lions will still be protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The western population, which ranges from the Alaskan coast west of Prince William Sound to Japan, is still listed as an Endangered species.

In California, the huge sea lions tend to shy away from human contact, preferring isolated rookeries and uninhabited islands as haulouts, and otherwise staying well out at sea. Farther north the animals interact with people more often, though not of their own choosing. Conflict between the sea lions and the fishing industry is rife. Threats to the Steller sea lion include food scarcity, entanglement in fishing nets, and gunshot wounds inflicted by fishermen in attempts to "protect" fish stocks.

"We're delighted to see the recovery of the eastern population of Steller sea lions," Jim Balsiger, administrator of NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Region, said in a press release. "We'll be working with the states and other partners to monitor this population to ensure its continued health."

One likely impact of the delisting is on how Steller sea lions are managed at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Since 2008, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has been killing California sea lions in an attempt to keep them from depleting protected stocks of salmon. The agency can do so under a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows lethal measures to reduce pinniped predation on imperiled salmon stocks. But until now, Oregon's wildlife agency has only been able to use non-lethal methods such as hazing to keep federally Threatened Steller sea lions away from the fish.

That could change with the delisting, which becomes official 30 days after the decision is published in the Federal Register. For its part, NOAA is proposing a 10-year monitoring program, twice the length required by law. If the sea lions' population declines in that period, NOAA says it will "take the steps necessary to address" the issue.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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