Arctic Science Journeys
Trawling for Answers to Sea Lion Declines
STORY: Just 30 years ago, tens of thousands of Steller sea lions could be seen--and heard--on remote rocky outcroppings in Alaska's Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. But there are now so few Steller sea lions here in western Alaska that federal officials earlier this month declared them an endangered species. Jon Lewis is with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
LEWIS: "The eastern Aleutians have somewhat stabilized. The big decline right now is occurring in the northeast Gulf. What has happened in the eastern Aleutian Islands is that things have gone so badly in the past that we are kind of bottoming out at a threshold."
Lewis and other scientists say sea lions are disappearing because they aren't getting enough to eat--but they don't know exactly why. Environmentalists like Ken Stump of Greenpeace blames industrial-scale commercial fishing.
STUMP: "For us the big issue that isn't being addressed is the fact that they're harvesting nearly a million metric tons of groundfish in areas that have been designated as critical Steller sea lion foraging habitat."
But rather than hurting sea lions, scientists say commercial fishing may actually help them. Fishermen target schools of large pollock--these are the fish that prey on smaller pollock sea lions also like to eat. But it's just a theory. To test it, scientists want to allow commercial fishing near sea lion rookeries and haulouts. Jon Lewis.
LEWIS: "Some have argued we would be better off fishing the large pollock very heavily, thereby freeing up the small fish, which are being consumed by the larger fish--freeing up those small fish for seals and sea lions. So we may in our good intention of cutting back the industry by 25 percent, say, we may in fact be allowing larger fish to maintain themselves in the system and essentially be in competition with the smaller seals and sea lions."
Scientists want to allow commercial fishing in some of the so-called "no-trawl" zones--these are areas within 20 miles of sea lion rookeries and haulouts that are now off limits to fishing. Lewis and other scientists hope to learn how commercial fishing affects sea lions and their prey.
Ironically, no-trawl zones were established five years ago to provide sea lions with more fish to eat. The proposal to now allow commercial fishing worries groups such as the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. Dorothy Childers is the group's executive director.
CHILDERS: "There's so much trawling already occurring and having already occurred through time in the Bering Sea that it seems a shame that the scientists feel they have to create more impact to understand the ramifications of fisheries management. There's got to be a better way than doing things that will possibly further the decline of an already endangered species."
Jon Lewis says he doesn't know whether this proposal will lead to discovering the cause of sea lion declines. But after trying everything else, he says scientists are running out of ideas.
LEWIS: "I think people sort of expect us to have a great plan in our back pocket and that just doesn't exist."
The fisheries agency is expected to make its proposal public this fall. Greenpeace says it will consider legal action to stop commercial fishing near sea lion rookeries and haulouts.
OUTRO: For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Debra Damron reporting from Fairbanks, Alaska.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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