Below is the meat of a press release the National Marine Fisheries Service issued today along with its Steller sea lion biological opinion.
And here's a handy map for reference.
The greatest concern is in fishery management area 543, in the western Aleutians. From 2000-2008, adult numbers declined 45% in this sub-region. Pup production declined 43%, making the ratio of pups to adult females on rookeries in this sub-region the lowest in the entire western Steller sea lion population. This continued low birth rate is an indicator of nutritional stress, or lack of food.
"We need to mitigate the potential for competition for food in areas where sea lion numbers are declining," said Jim Balsiger, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, Alaska Region.
A definitive cause for the decline of sea lions has not been identified, and it is likely that other factors are important in understanding the lack of recovery, Balsiger said. "Even though factors other than fishing also affect the sea lion population, under the Endangered Species Act we are required to ensure that the actions our agency takes to authorize fisheries do not jeopardize these endangered animals."
NOAA Fisheries has included a Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA) in the draft biological opinion that would modify groundfish management in the Aleutian Islands to limit competition between commercial fishing for groundfish and the sea lions. The RPA provides a proposed approach to avoid jeopardizing the western population of Steller sea lions and impacts to designated critical habitat (0-20 nautical miles from rookeries and haulouts). Because Atka mackerel and Pacific cod are the two most prominent species in the Steller sea lion diet in this region, the alternative calls for the closure of the Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries in area 543. Additional but less restrictive measures are also needed in adjacent areas 541 and 542 in the central Aleutians, where sea lions continue to decline as well, albeit at a much slower rate than in area 543.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the public will review the draft biological opinion at a special meeting in Anchorage August 16-20.
"NOAA Fisheries will work with the Council to develop management measures for the groundfish fisheries to ensure fishing operations are consistent with the mandates of the ESA," said Balsiger. "The ultimate goal is the recovery of the western Steller sea lion population so that the species can be removed from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife."
A final biological opinion is expected in January 2011. The new fishery management measures are expected to be implemented in January 2011.