Commercial fishing continues to be a potential threat to Steller sea lions, according to a federal plan that lists dozens of actions necessary for the animals to recover — but not increased regulations on fisheries.
The recovery plan issued Wednesday by the National Marine Fisheries Service calls for the creation of a program to assess the impact of commercial fishing on sea lions, as well as the potential threat posed by killer whales and environmental changes in the North Pacific. It said the current level of fishery management measures to protect sea lions should be maintained.
The plan looked at the eastern and western populations of Steller sea lions in Alaska. The western population, extending from the eastern Gulf of Alaska to the western Aleutian Islands and beyond, is listed as endangered.
Between 2000 and 2004, the western population increased at about 3 percent a year — the first upticks since the 1970s. But recent surveys show the population could be declining slightly. It is now estimated at 45,000 animals, after suffering more than a 70 percent decline from the late 1970s to 2000.
The drop was attributed to deaths that were incidental to commercial fishing when it was legal for fishermen to protect their catch by shooting sea lions. Fishery regulations have since been put into place to protect sea lions.
The plan by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service found that it would cost more than $430 million for the western population to fully recover. It put a $1 million price tag on recovery for the eastern population of Steller sea lions, which stretches from southeast Alaska to California.
The plan found no substantial threats to the eastern population, whose numbers are increasing at about 3 percent a year.
Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the plan is good overall but notable for what it lacks.
For example, it does not call for increased regulation to curtail the Bering Sea fishery, even though it identifies the fishery as a potentially large threat to sea lions in the competition for food, Cummings said.
The plan also treats too lightly the disappearance of sea lions from the islands off San Francisco and fails to effectively plan for the impacts of climate change, he said.
"It is a status quo plan, not a recovery plan," Cummings said. "Given the sea lions' habitat is already changing as dramatically as any place on earth, you can't talk about the future, which a recovery plan does, without squarely addressing what that will look like 30 years from now."
A new biological opinion scheduled to be completed in May will take a more focused look at sea lions and the fishery management conservation measures in place, said Lisa Rotterman, Steller sea lion coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage.
Terry Leitzell, general counsel of Icicle Seafoods Inc. of Seattle, said the plan is correct in saying there is still a lot of uncertainty as to how fishing, killer whales and changes in the environment are impacting sea lions.
"It is a tough ecosystem to figure out," he said. "We still don't have enough science to identify which of those possible effects are having the real impact."