Steller sea lion bull bellows
Steller Seal Lion
NMML photo library

Summer counts of Steller sea lions along Alaska’s rugged coast suggests the Far North’s most endangered pinniped may be continuing a slow recovery that first appeared three years ago.

But gnarly weather hampered the 2007 surveys and kept biologists from visiting some sites. Combine that difficulty with continued declines at certain central and western Aleutian locales, and the overall prognosis for the species remains very much guarded, according to a memo released this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Still, this “mixed” news contrasts sharply with the precipitous plunge of the 1980s, when the number of sea lions between the Gulf of Alaska and the tip of the Aleutian chain seemed trapped in a population tumble that scientists could not explain and managers could not derail.

“Looking at western stock trends since 2004, our surveys show mixed results — increases here and decreases there — but the overall picture indicates that the Steller sea lion population west of Cape Saint Elias in 2007 was similar in size to the population in 2004,” said Doug DeMaster, director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in a press release from NOAA Fisheries.

“This year’s count, while incomplete, supports that big-picture impression.”

1978: Before the decline
Sea lions on Middleton Island
NOAA photo library

Declines are more prominent in the western part of the survey area, with some gains appearing further eastward.

The 2007 count in the Central Gulf of Alaska, from the central Kenai Peninsula through the Semidi Islands, is the first showing a population increase since the 1970s, when the time series began.

Even such an inconclusive finding offers good news in Alaska’s epic sea lion saga, a high seas conundrum that evolved into one of the most intractable scientific problems in the history of the North Pacific marine management.

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