The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld protections for the western population of Steller sea lions, rejecting claims of fishing industry representatives and the state of Alaska in a challenge of limits to the commercial fishery.
In an opinion filed July 23, the judges affirmed the US District Court decision on limitations set by the National Marine Fisheries Service on sub-regions of the Pacific Ocean inhabited by the endangered western distinct population segment of Steller sea lions.
The case was brought by a number of commercial fishing entities, including the Freezer Longline Coalition, Alaska Seafood Cooperative, Groundfish Forum, Alaska Groundfish Cooperative, the Fishing Company of Alaska and others against the National Marine Fisheries Service, with the conservation organizations Oceana and Greenpeace as intervenor defendants. The plaintiff’s principal argument was that NMFS violated the Endangered Species Act because it based the fishing restrictions on declines in sub-regions rather than in the entire population of the endangered species. Plaintiffs also contended that the agency utilized the wrong standard in measuring the effects of continued fishing and failed to find a sufficient causal link between authorizing fisheries and the population decline.
The appeals court held that use of sub-regions 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.
Susan Murray, deputy vice president for the Pacific region for Oceanic, called the decision “a victory for healthy oceans.”
“Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands have had a tough history, from being shot for sport, to fisheries taking their food,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s deputy vice president for the Pacific.
“The solution to recovering the Steller sea lion population is not more industrial fishing for important prey species,” said Jon Warrenchuk, Oceana’s senior scientist and campaign manager. “The Steller sea lion is still facing a slow road to recovery, and the Aleutian Islands are key to their survival.”
A copy of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion is online at http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2013/07/23/12-35201.pdf