Two and a half centuries ago, German naturalist Georg Steller sailed to Alaska with explorer Vitus Bering at the behest of the Czar of Russia.
Steller marveled at the plentiful sea lions that were bold enough to follow the Russian ship. But although the crew was hungry, "no one dared to kill this fierce animal," Steller wrote in his journal.
Today, the large Alaska sea lions named for Steller are less mighty. In 20 years their population has dropped more than 80 percent, from 120,000 to 20,000.
The result is a new fight between fishermen and environmentalists over the fate of these bewhiskered sea lions.
To a certain extent, the battle is reminiscent of the move by environmentalists to get consumers to stop eating tuna because of concern about dolphins. Only in this case the charge isn't that sea lions are being indiscriminately caught in nets. It's that the industry's harvest of pollack is so great that it is slowly starving the sea lions into extinction.
The Alaskan pollock harvest is the nation's largest, and supplies most of the frozen whitefish, fish sticks, fish patties and imitation crab meat that you buy at stores and fast-food restaurants around the United States.
The Alaskan pollock catch accounts for about 40 percent, of all commercially harvested seafood in the US, according to statistics from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. By some measurements, the Alaskan pollock harvest is the world's largest single-species commercial fish harvest.
Most of the pollock is caught in the Bering Sea, although there is some harvesting in the Gulf of Alaska. The Bering Sea pollock fishery started up in a big way in the 1970s, when federal and international law established the 200-mile US-exclusive economic zone.
The sea lions classified as endangered are the western Alaska Steller sea lions, located from Prince William Sound to the Alaska's Aleutian chain.
The harvest may be depriving the sea lions of their best source of food. The 2.5 million pound-a-year harvest of Alaskan pollock - while perhaps not the sole or primary cause of the lions' decline - will jeopardize the animals' survival if not curbed, said a December ruling from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Yet environmentalists have charged that the NMFS's steps to separate sea lions from the huge trawlers that compete for the same fish have been too little, too late.
NMFS has shirked its responsibilities to the sea lions by caving in to pressure, they say. The sea lion's numbers plummeted just as the most industrialized US commercial fishery expanded, they say.
"Every time they have faced a decision that might help the sea lions but might hurt industry, they have gone down the road that makes it easier for industry," says Peter Van Tuyn, of Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm.
The courts recently agreed. In July, in US District Court in Seattle, Judge Thomas Zilly ruled that NMFS had failed to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species and National Environmental Protection acts. The ruling was a victory for the environmentalist.
Whatever protections NMFS had put in place, ruled Judge Zilly, were nominal and tailored for the convenience of the $650 million-a-year Alaskan pollock industry.
But those protections have already been expensive, says Paul MacGregor, of the At-Sea Processors Association. Loss of harvests south of the Aleutian Islands has cost the industry $50 million this year, and habitat restrictions have increased operating costs, he says.
Industry supporters fear more curbs on the harvest, which resumed Aug. 1. They deny any harm to sea lions from the pollock harvest, blaming instead a climate change in the Alaska waters, a shift in the stocks of fish which make up the diet of the sea lions, and over predation of the lions by killer whales and hunters.
Politicians are also weighing in. "Everything in this community is dependent on a strong fishery," says Frank Kelty, mayor of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, the Aleutian port at the center of the pollock industry.
And Senator Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, said that "The link between pollock fishing and sea lions is just not there," after NMFS issued its jeopardy ruling last December.
Experts at the Alaska SeaLife Center have no answers either. "There isn't anything clear at all here, except that sea lions are disappearing," says scientist Don Calkins. "It is a mistake to draw conclusions from what little information we have."
Yet to Mr. Calkins, restrictions on commercial fishing are justified to protect the sea lions, even though the cause of the mammals' woes is yet unclear. "If you make mistakes, you make them on the side of conservation. And that's the way I want to play the game," he says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society