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Arctic Science Journeys
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Endangered Status Looms for Steller Sea Lions

INTRO: After being put on hold for a year, the process to list Alaska's Steller sea lions as an endangered species is back on the front burner, and so too is the debate over whether the species needs further protection. Arctic Science Journeys reporter Debra Damron has more.

STORY: When the National Marine Fisheries Service last year proposed putting Steller sea lions in western Alaska on the Endangered Species List, most scientists agreed the species was in dire trouble. A year later, some things have changed. First, a yearlong Congressional moratorium on naming new species to the list was lifted in May, and second, some scientists say sea lions may be improving on their own.

One of those scientists is Andrew Trites of the University of British Columbia.

"The evidence suggests to us that the western stock should stay listed as threatened and not be changed to endangered at this time, while the increasing eastern stocks should be de-listed."

Trites leads a team of university researchers in Canada and Alaska studying the cause of sea lion declines. Their research shows that the rate of sea lion declines in the Bering Sea may be leveling off. Further, he says sea lion numbers haven't declined to the point where they need federal protection to recover.

"There's no doubt that this decline of Steller sea lions is dramatic, it's clear something has changed in the system. At this point in time I just don't see that they are in danger of going extinct. I don't see them going extinct in the near future."

Fran Bennis of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council disagrees. She says the western sea lion stocks should be declared endangered because it would focus attention on the eroding health of the Bering Sea ecosystem.

"We look at the ecosystem as a whole and sea lions are but one component--an important one--but one of several species of marine mammals and seabirds and fish that are in decline in the Bering Sea. However, given the status of Steller sea lions, that they are depressed, that there's other stocks that are in decline, we will stick by our initial recommendation, which is to support an endangered listing of the western stocks of the Steller sea lion."

The National Marine Fisheries service has until October to decide whether to put the Steller sea lion on the endangered species list. Until then, the agency isn't commenting on what that decision might be. Steve Zimmerman is chief of protected resources at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

"I just can't tell you what our policy is going to be because we haven't developed it yet. There's no reason to believe it's any different than our proposed rule, but at this point we are not going to say we are going forward with the listing because we have not yet reviewed the public comments and determined that in fact we are going forward."

A decision to declare Steller sea lions an endangered species would affect only sea lions in Prince William Sound and the Bering Sea. There, sea lion numbers have declined most dramatically during the past 20 years. Endangered status would likely mean steps to further protect sea lions, such as larger no-fishing zones around rookeries and haul-outs. For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Debra Damron.

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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