Independent Reviewers Shred Steller Sea Lion BiOp

Credit: Mikeetnier/National Marine Mammal Laboratory

An independent panel tasked with evaluating the scientific merits of a federal assessment of the endangered Western population of Steller sea lion has released its finding. The general consensus: the government’s science doesn’t pass muster.

The Center for Independent Experts is an official body of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The panel was convened to peer review the controversial assessment, which attributed the decline of Steller sea lions in the western Aleutians to resource competition with fisheries. In 2011, the National Marine Fisheries Service shut down the Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries in the region based on that analysis. In response, the state of Alaska and industry groups sued NMFS, alleging the government’s findings were little more than conjecture. The independent panel’s review seems to support that assessment.

The three scientists on the panel analyzed the document and provided their individual conclusions regarding its scientific credibility. Each of them identified a number of unique objections to the science, but they also overlapped in several of their criticisms. Most significantly, they all agreed there’s no evidence to support the hypothesis that western Steller sea lions aren’t getting enough food. That was the government’s primary reason for imposing the fisheries restrictions. The panelists also pointed to the tenuous link between food availability and decreased birth rates, with Dr. Kevin Stokes going so far as to call NFMS’ logic on the matter “circular.”

The reviewers comments won’t have any immediate impact on the fisheries closures, but they’ll factor into a court-ordered environmental impact statement that NFMS is preparing. But as Dr. Stokes notes in his report, “the science itself does not determine this. Rather, the interpretation of the [Endangered Species Act] and implementing regulations is paramount.” In other words, this controversy is unlikely to be resolved soon, and when it is, it’s as likely to be in a courtroom as in the halls of academia.