NOAA takes Steller sea lions off threatened list

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The eastern population of the Steller sea lion will be taken off the threatened species list, a federal agency announced Wednesday.The sea lions, whose range stretches from Alaska's Panhandle to California's Channel Islands, are the first animal to be delisted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 19 years.

The last animal delisted was the eastern North Pacific gray whale, which was taken off the threatened list in 1994, NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.

The agency earlier this year recommended delisting the eastern population of the Steller sea lions, an action sought by the states of Alaska, Washington and Oregon. Commercial fishermen also protested fishing regulations because of the listing.

"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 statement announcing the delisting. "We'll be working with the states and other partners to monitor this population to ensure its continued health."

The delisting does not affect the status of the western population of the Stellar sea lions, whose range goes from Cape Suckling, Alaska, to Russian waters. They remain on the endangered list.

The agency estimated there were about 18,000 animals in the eastern population in 1979, and the population was listed as threatened in 1990. In 2010, the latest year a count was available, the agency estimated just over 70,000 sea lions.

The decline in the population was blamed on fishermen and people on other boats or on shore shooting the animals because they were a nuisance and killing fish.

Significant safeguards remain for the sea lions, Speegle said by phone from her office in Juneau.

"While they are being removed from the list of threatened and endangered species, they are still provided a good measure of protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act," she said.

When an animal is delisted, the Endangered Species Act requires a monitoring plan that covers five years. NOAA has decided to double that length of time to monitor the sea lions.

"We are just proceeding carefully and cautiously to ensure that this species can be maintained in the recovered status," she said.

The delisting becomes effective 30 days after a notice is published in the Federal Register.