MOSCOW, July 24 (RAPSI, Ingrid Burke) - A US court held Tuesday that a federal agency had acted appropriately in imposing limitations on commercial fishing in certain sub-regions of the Pacific Ocean that play host to an endangered population of sea lions, thus rejecting claims brought by Alaska and representatives of the fishing industry challenging the restrictions. 

According to a profile on the Stellar sea lion published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the US federal agency charged with protecting the nation’s marine life, they are the largest member of the eared seal family, with males weighing up to 1,120 kg. (2,500 lbs.) and measuring up to 3.4 m. (11 ft.) in length. They tend to range between light blonde and ginger in color, and are known for their “impressive low-frequency vocalizations,” akin to roars. The Stellar sea lion’s diet is rich in sea life lower on the food chain than itself, including an array of fishes (salmon, cod, etc.), octopus, and more.   

Stellar sea lions – also known as northern sea lions – are found along coastlines throughout the North Pacific – from Hokkaido, Japan to Russia’s Kuril Islands and Okhotsk Sea, the Bering Sea, the Aleutian Islands, and from Alaska on down the West Coast of Canada and the US to California. They are divided into two distinct population segments – Eastern and Western. The Eastern segment includes those populations residing along the pacific coasts of Canada and the US mainland, as well as in southeast Alaska. The Western segment includes those in Japan and Russia, as well as those living in the Aleutian Islands and the central and western Gulf of Alaska.  

The Eastern segment has been classified as threatened, and the Western segment (Western Stellar sea lions) as endangered. According to the NMFS, a species is classified threatened if it will likely become endangered within the foreseeable future. As defined by the US Endangered Species Act, “The term ‘endangered species’ means any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range other than a species of the Class Insecta determined by the Secretary to constitute a pest whose protection under the provisions of this Act would present an overwhelming and overriding risk to man. “

According to the opinion released Tuesday by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Western Stellar sea lions were declared endangered in 1997, but have suffered population declines in certain areas in recent years, having shown signs of nutritional stress. 

As explained by the opinion: “The [NMFS’] critical finding was that natality rates were lower for the [Western Stellar sea lions] than for the eastern population, and that the most likely explanation for the difference was that portions of the [Western Stellar sea lions] were experiencing nutritional stress. The [opinion] concluded that nutritional stress had directly or indirectly contributed to the reduction in population growth. It observed that although the nutritional stress hypothesis had been questioned by some experts, fishery presence in the [effected Western Stellar sea lions] sub-regions was nevertheless negatively correlated with population numbers. In other words, as fishing increased, the [Western Stellar sea lions] population fell.”

As such, the NMFS implemented a series of measures restricting the activities of certain commercial fisheries in the areas exhibiting population decline in 2010. Shortly thereafter, the State of Alaska and representatives of the fishing industry took to the courts to challenge the measure, motivated by concerns that the restrictions may pose adverse economic impacts.

Specifically, Alaska and the other plaintiffs claimed that the NMFS violated the Endangered Species Act because its restrictions were based on population declines in specific areas, rather than on the population of the species as a whole. The plaintiffs further challenged the standards used by the NMFS in measuring the impact of continued fishing, and alleged that it had failed to establish a sufficient causal link between the activities of fisheries and the population declines.  

The Circuit Court held that in fact the NMFS did not violate the Act by basing its restrictions on population declines in specific areas or sub-regions, nor did it apply inappropriate standards in measuring the impact of continued fishing, thus affirming the lower court’s decision. In the court’s own words, “We hold that use of subregions did not violate the ESA and that the agency utilized appropriate standards to find that continuing previous fishing levels in those sub-regions would adversely modify the critical habitat and jeopardize the continued existence of the entire population. We therefore affirm the district court’s judgment rejecting plaintiffs’ claims.”