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Scientists salvaging, scrapping sea lion data after lawsuit


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Posted by on September 14, 2006 at 15:42:59:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Scientists are lamenting the loss of untold amounts of data on Steller sea lions after their study permits were revoked in a lawsuit by an animal rights group in early summer, the best time of year for observing the endangered animals.

The decision found that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which issues the permits, had not properly assessed whether some research techniques, such as branding sea lion pups, were essential to studying the animals.

The ruling came soon after the start of annual May to August research at the marine mammals' remote breeding grounds along the southern edge of Alaska.

"We missed the peak pupping period," Lorrie Rea, head of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, said Wednesday. "We don't know how many gave birth and lost pups or had stillborns, so the data is all compromised."

A data gap could stymie understanding of the severe and enigmatic decline of Steller sea lion populations in the last three decades. The western population of sea lions, whose range spans central Alaska to northern Japan, inexplicably dropped from 200,000 in the 1970s to 35,000 animals in 2002, according to federal estimates.

Andrew Trites, research director for the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium, was tracking what Steller sea lions eat, which animals were giving birth, which were surviving, and to what extent commercial fishing could be affecting the blubbery animals' abilities to feed.

"Our ability to answer those questions was stopped," Trites said. "Hopefully it doesn't have a long-term consequence."

A settlement in the suit, filed in May by the Humane Society of the United States, allowed some observational research to resume in June. But scientists said merely watching the animals from afar is not enough. They need to be able to capture some for health studies and hot-brand new pups annually to keep years-long studies accurate and up-to-date.

Trites scrapped a $300,000 foraging and dietary study of the animals in southeast Alaska as a result of the ruling because his team was banned from getting close enough to collect fecal waste.

"That was our worst casualty," Trites said. "While we could have gone out and still counted animals, we'd have been spending a lot of money to find out very little."

The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward had to release a group of juvenile Steller sea lions in the midst of a study, said science director Shannon Atkinson. The center shifted $100,000 in Steller sea lion research money to studies on other pinnipeds, a family that includes seals, sea lions and walruses.

Rea said a five-year, $1 million study on sea lion breeding in southeast Alaska will be less precise than she hoped, but was salvaged by doing extra observations later in the summer.

"So much money has been invested in this species, and years of studies are just now coming to fruition," Atkinson said. "It wasn't the best time to stop them."

Six permit holders have been left in limbo as the fisheries service scrambles to craft the environmental impact statement required in the ruling by Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The Humane Society said the fisheries service is at fault for the scientists' quandary. In 2005 it had warned NMFS it would file a lawsuit over the lack of justification for the research.

"Any delays, lost research or financial loss falls squarely on the doorstep of NMFS," said Humane Society attorney Jonathan Lovvorn. "We had offered them the same deal in this case that they ended up with, and they said no."

Lovvorn said the lawsuit had to coincide with the issuance of the research permits. In invalidating the permits, he said, the court could not differentiate between various types of research methods because the permits covered them all.

Officials at NMFS said court battles are routine in shaping marine policy. The lawsuit is the fourth in the last five years to challenge endangered species research. The others involved green sea turtles in Hawaii and gray whales off the California coast.

"If you're never challenged in court, you may not recognize your shortcomings," said Steve Leathery, former chief of permits division, NMFS. "Litigation is an important part of public policy."

Leathery said the agency had done less extensive studies on Steller sea lion research, but avoided a full-blown environmental impact statement because "they take a long time and a lot more money."

"It's not that we're reluctant to do them," Leathery said. "It's just that we have a limit on our resources. We're constrained."

The agency hopes to have the statement approved and the permits back in place by the time Steller sea lions return next season to their rocky breeding beaches and ledges.



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