ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A new survey indicates that the Steller sea lion population in Alaska is increasing for the first time in decades.
A June aerial survey of 84 places from the Gulf of Alaska to the Aleutian Island chain where the marine mammals regularly haul out found more than 19,300 adult and adolescent animals. That's about 5.5 percent more than the 18,300 counted two years ago at the same locations.
While the results are preliminary, they point in a good direction.
''This is the first good news we've had in 20-plus years,'' said biologist John Sease, who oversees the counts for the National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle. ''It's such a delightful change. ... And as important, they did it over a pretty wide area, from Prince William Sound to the central Aleutians.''
The survey matches reports from working fishermen, who say they've seen more sea lions lately, said Al Birch, executive director of the Kodiak-based Alaska Draggers Association. The group represents 55 trawlers and long-liners from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
''There have been indications that it's turning around somewhat,'' Birch said. ''Any increase is good news.''
Steller sea lion numbers have crashed more than 80 percent in the past 25 years, confounding scientists for nearly two decades. The sharp declines in the population has led to commercial fishing restrictions and environmental lawsuits. The animals were listed as endangered in 1997.
However, both Sease and Bob Small, the leader of the recovery team organized under the federal Endangered Species Act, cautioned against reading too much into the findings.
''It's definitely great news,'' said Small, who also oversees marine mammal management for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. ''But we need several years' worth of data before we can indeed say there's been a switch in the population trend.''
Even with this latest increase, the sea lions were still more than 5 percent below the number tallied in 1998 and 34 percent below 1991 at the same index sites, Sease said. The recent counts also documented problems at some rookeries and haul-outs, and among certain age groups.
The number of sea lions seen in the far western Aleutians dropped 24 percent since 2000 and 75 percent since 1991, for instance.
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