July 14, 2005

Animal Rights Group Sues Over Sea Lions

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- An animal rights group filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing the federal government of violating several environmental protection acts by allowing the use of certain research techniques on threatened and endangered Steller sea lions.

The Humane Society of the United States says the National Marine Fisheries Service has approved permits for "invasive" research activities, including the annual capture, hot branding and tissue sampling of more than 3,000 Steller sea lions in both eastern and western stocks.

Humane Society officials said the research practices violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

"The obligation of scientists and the government to do no harm while conducting research is greatest when dealing with endangered species," said Dr. John Grandy, senior vice president for wildlife and habitat protection for the Washington, D.C.-based society.

The steep decline in Steller sea lion populations from the late 1970s through 2000 continues to confound scientists and resource managers.

The Steller sea lion habitat roughly follows the rim of the North Pacific Ocean from northern Japan to the south coast of Alaska. The animals also live on California's Channel Islands.

The number of Steller sea lions in the western stock dropped from about 200,000 originally to 35,000 animals in 2002, federal fisheries scientists estimate. Scientists do not know the original population level of the genetically distinct eastern group, but as of 2002 there were 31,000 animals, with numbers on the rise.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in 1990 listed both populations as threatened. The western population in Alaska was listed as endangered in 1997 after a dramatic decrease was documented.

Fisheries service scientists contend their research techniques are not harming the overall Steller sea lion population and are necessary to understanding the nature and extent of the animals' decline.

The research involves tracking Steller sea lions to their foraging grounds and main habitats so fisheries managers can set catch limits that don't adversely affect the animals, said Dr. Doug DeMaster, director of the federal Alaska Fisheries Science Center, based in Seattle.

"We must capture or hot brand the animals and see where they are feeding to better manage the fisheries and try to protect the animals from human activities," DeMaster said.

DeMaster said the research techniques are needed to promote the species' overall recovery.

"The government has to balance research needs for managers to make decisions with the potential risk to the population," he said.

The Humane Society is willing to meet with federal officials, but will take the case to court if its concerns over the nature of the research are not addressed, said society attorney Jonathan Lovvern.


On the Net:

Alaska Fisheries Science Center: http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/

National Marine Fisheries Service: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/

Humane Society of the United States: http://www.hsus.org/