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Scientific Societies Call for Continued Protection of Steller Sea Lions in California under the ESA

June 18, 2012.  Today, the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) submitted formal comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regarding the agency’s proposal to remove the Eastern Distinct Population Segment of Steller Sea Lion from the list of threatened and endangered species. 

Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) were protected under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in 1990 based primarily on population declines that resulted from unsustainable fisheries management.  In 1994, NMFS divided the Steller sea lion into two Distinct Population Segments (DPS).  The Western DPS of Steller sea lion was uplisted to endangered status, while the Eastern DPS remained threatened.  While the data indicate that conservation actions have helped the Eastern DPS meet its recovery targets for delisting in eastern Alaska, British Columbia, and possibly Washington and Oregon, the data do not demonstrate that recovery targets have been met in California. Steller sea lions were extirpated from the Channel Islands in the 1980s and remain well below their historic population levels.  Today, Steller sea lion populations in California are only one-third their populations levels from the first half of the 20th century.  For this reason, SCB and ASM believe that it is premature to delist the Eastern DPS at this point.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) provides the National Marine Fisheries Service with the ability to protect a species that is threatened or endangered in “a significant portion of its range” as well as those species that are threatened or endangered throughout their entire range.  The offshore waters of the California Current represents a distinct ecological region from those ecological regions farther north.   Accordingly, SCB and ASM are urging the NMFS to protect the California portion of the Steller sea lion’s range under the ESA.  SCB is particularly concerned that NMFS is discounting the value of the California population based on a draft joint policy with the Fish and Wildlife Service interpreting the phrase “significant portion of its range” as it is used in the ESA.  SCB provided extensive comments on this draft policy because the Services draft joint policy risked stripping the term “significant portion of its range” of any independent meaning or conservation value. 
Although the draft policy has not been finalized, NMFS appears to rely on this policy in denying the Steller sea lion continued protection in California.

The SCB-ASM letter can be found HERE.

SCB’s comments on the FWS/NMFS joint policy on the meaning of “Significant Portion of its Range” can be found HERE.