UNALASKA (AP) -- Results of a survey by federal biologists indicates the Steller sea lion population continues to decline.
Biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service conducted an aerial survey in June of sea lion habitat in the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska and counted an estimated 18,193 animals. The survey, released late last month, indicates a 9.8 percent decline since the previous survey in the summer of 1998.
The sea lion population in Western Alaska has dropped from an estimated 180,000 animals in the mid-1960s to fewer than 50,000 today. That decline has led to the listing of the Steller sea lion as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
While the number of adult sea lions continued to decline, a separate count of newborn pups in nine rookeries showed signs of stability.
Scientists on the federal research vessel Tiglax visited the rookeries and found the number of pups showed no decline since the 1998 survey.
Federal sea lion researcher Tom Loughlin called the pup count a promising sign of stability.
Representatives of the fishing industry and environmental groups differed on the implications of the survey's findings.
The continued decline in sea lion numbers proves restrictions on fishing near sea lion habitat are not working, said Stephanie Madsen of the Pacific Seafood Processors.
In August, a federal judge issued an injunction banning all trawling within a vast area designated as critical habitat.
But Ken Stump of Greenpeace said Judge Thomas Zilly should continue the trawling ban.
''The trend is still quite clear. It's still down,'' Stump said. Stump said he considers the aerial count a more reliable indicator of the health of the sea lion population than the pup count because the aerial count covered a larger area.
Gulf of Alaska trawlers now must travel about 20 miles from shore, and larger Bering Sea trawlers travel about 100 miles from Unalaska and Akutan before deploying trawl nets.
Zilly's injunction means more work for the Coast Guard. The area that must be patrolled has doubled since Zilly's injunction, from 60,000 to 120,000 square miles. The Coast Guard is seeking funding for an additional 400 hours of aerial patrols, said Capt. Vince O'Shea in Juneau.
''We've had supplemental funding that at least in the short term addresses our increased cost of fuel,'' O'Shea said.
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