Some Steller Sea Lions
by Bill Rudolph
NOAA Fisheries announced last week the eastern population of Steller sea lions has recovered and can be delisted from the ESA. It's the first species removed from protection of the federal law by NOAA since 1994, when it delisted the eastern north Pacific gray whale .
"We're delighted to see the recovery of the eastern population of Steller sea lions," said Jim Balsiger, Administrator of NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Region, in an Oct. 23 statement. "We'll be working with the states and other partners to monitor this population to ensure its continued health."
The population runs from Cape Suckling, Alaska to Southern California, and has increased in size from around 18,000 to more than 70,000 individuals, the feds say, who determined the population no longer needs a "threatened" designation because it has met the criteria of a recovery plan developed in 2008.
The Stellers were listed in 1990, and the western distinct population segment (DPS) remains on the ESA list for protection.
The agency said it received petitions from Oregon and Washington, and another one from Alaska to delist the eastern DPS after it initiated a 2010 status review. Two years later, NOAA released a draft status review that recommended the delisting for public comment, and received more than a thousand responses.
NOAA has developed a 10-year-long monitoring plan as a precautionary measure, twice as long as the ESA calls for.
The eastern population of Steller sea lions will still be protected by another federal statute, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but whether the states may be able to use more drastic measures to reduce predation by Stellers on sturgeon and salmon below Bonneville Dam, remains to be seen. In recent years, the states have lethally removed some California sea lions to deter predation on the ESA-listed salmonids. Up until recently, the Steller population has preferred to target sturgeon, while California sea lions that show up there every spring prefer spring Chinook.
At Bonneville Dam, the estimated salmonid predation by Stellers was slightly lower in 2013 than in 2012, and higher than all other years observed. But their estimated sturgeon predation was the lowest seen since 2007.
A 2013 report by the Corps of Engineers found, on average, 13 Steller sea lions per day around the dam in the spring and estimated they ate more than 1,400 salmon and 635 sturgeon, down 20 percent to 50 percent from the previous five years. "Whether this was due to a lack of sturgeon abundance or switching prey preference to salmonids is unknown, said the report.
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