The states of Oregon and Washington on Aug. 30, 2010, petitioned NOAA Fisheries to delist the eastern “designated population segment” of Steller sea lions. Two days later, the state of Alaska submitted a similar petition.
The eastern DPS, in a range extending from Cape Suckling in southeast Alaska east to British Columbia and south to California along the coast, is listed as threatened under the ESA. The average weight for an adult male is 566 kilograms or about 1,226 pounds and 263 kg (580 pounds) for females with maximum weights of about 1,120 kg (2,470) and 350 kg (772) respectively.
In a 90-day petition finding issued Dec. 13, NOAA Fisheries found that the petitions presented substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petition action “may” be warranted. Comments on the finding were accepted through Feb. 11.
The federal agency is now amidst the ESA process of determining whether or not delisting is indeed warranted. That decision is due by Aug. 30, one year from the date of the receipt of the first petition.
If NOAA Fisheries decides the delisting is warranted, another public comment period would ensue. Then the agency would take the information gathered through the process and launch into the development of a “final rule” – the actual listing determination.
The process will be exhaustive scientifically, according to Lisa M. Rotterman, Steller sea lion coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division, Alaska Region. As coordinator of the species’ status review and petition review processes Rotterman said she is conscious of the need to make an unbiased evaluation.
“We want to make sure we have a very valid scientific reason” if it is decided the eastern DPS is to be delisted, or if it is decided it is not, she said. Rotterman said at this point the jury is still out.
“We’ve gotten quite a few comments and a wide variety of opinions about what we should do,” Rotterman said. They include comments and information from states, tribes, fishing groups, conservation groups, animal rights groups and others.
The states say that 30 or more years of steady growth has lifted the eastern population to a level at which they are no longer in danger.
“We believe that, based on your review of this material and additional information others can provide, the Department of Commerce and NOAA Fisheries will find that the EDPS of Steller sea lions from central California through southeast Alaska has recovered to healthy and sustainable levels of abundance, faces no significant threats as defined under the law and no longer meets the criteria for listing as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act,” the Oregon-Washington petition concludes.
The states note that a revised Steller recovery plan completed by NOAA Fisheries in 2008 reports that the EDPS has been increasing by 3.1 percent or more per year for the 25-year period ending in 2002 and has continue growing at the rate, more than doubling for the southeast Alaska, British Columbia and Oregon population. In 2002 the total EDPS population was estimated to number from 46,000 to 58,000. Much of the turnaround resulted from the near elimination of predator control kills and commercial harvest.
A 2007 study concludes that the “population is now probably as high as it has been in the past century,” the Oregon-Washington petition says.
The Stellers gained protection from commercial exploitation with passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972.
The states’ petition said that “none of the potential threats to recovery of sea lions identified in the recovery plan (predation, harvest, killing, human impacts, entanglement in debris, parasitism, disease, toxic substances, climate change, reduced prey biomass or quality, disturbance, or any cumulative effect of a combination of these factors) appear to be significant sources of mortality for EDPS sea lions, nor do they seem likely to prevent the continued population growth of the EDPS in the foreseeable future.”
“The recovery of the Eastern Steller sea lion DPS is an ESA success story and a good example of government and non-government agencies and other stakeholders working together to develop and implement conservation actions to recover a species from significant declines,” the Alaska petition says. “We offer our assistance in the delisting process. It is important to prioritize this delisting to document this ESA success story and accurately reflect the healthy status of this Steller sea lion DPS.”
“The Eastern DPS of the Steller sea lion is clearly not in danger of extinction now, nor is it likely to be in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future. Consequently, the State of Alaska respectfully requests that NMFS take immediate action to remove the Eastern Steller sea lion DPS from the threatened list under the ESA.”