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Steller Sea Lion (Eumetopias Jubatus)

Existing Protection or Other Status

Management of marine mammals in Canadian waters is a federal responsibility. Since 1970, sea lions have been protected by various regulations enacted under the Fisheries Act and enforced by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). In the Pacific Region, which encompasses the entire Canadian range of Steller sea lions, protection was originally provided under Section 21 of the British Columbia Fishery (General) Regulations, which stipulated that: “No person shall fish for, catch and retain, kill, disturb or molest an elephant seal, a harbour seal, a sea lion or a sea otter or have in possession any such seal, sea lion or sea otter or any portion thereof except under licence issued by the Minister”.  Prior to being amended in 1984, however, the regulations also contained a provision giving blanket exclusion to commercially licensed fishermen, who were allowed to disturb or kill seals and sea lions to protect their gear and catch. However, the provision was not widely known, and although no statistics on such kills are available, discussions with fishermen suggest they were probably small.

In 1993, the regional regulations were superseded by the national Marine Mammal Regulations, which in Section 7 stipulated “No person shall disturb a marine mammal except when fishing for marine mammals under the authority of these Regulations”. Section 5 further states that: “Subject to section 6 (exclusion for natives), no person shall fish for marine mammals except under the authority of a licence issued under these Regulations or under the Aboriginal Communal Fishing Licences Regulations”. Section 6(1) allows that “An Indian or Inuk other than a beneficiary may, without a licence, fish for food, social or ceremonial purposes for (a) seals…”. Since being enacted, the entire Pacific Region has been closed to commercial hunting of all marine mammals, including Steller sea lions. 

In addition to protection from killing, Section 11 of the regulations stipulates that: “No person, other than the holder of a licence to fish for marine mammals for experimental, scientific, educational or public display purposes issued under the Fishery (General) Regulations, shall (a) move a live marine mammal from the immediate vicinity in which it is found; or (b) tag or mark, or attempt to tag or mark, a live marine mammal in any manner.” During the 1990s, three permits were issued to the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Consortium through the University of British Columbia to live-capture a total of 15 pups for captive studies. Six additional pups were captured in 2003.

Since being protected in 1970, small numbers of Steller sea lions have been killed in BC under special permits. In 1990, DFO began issuing permits to salmon farm sites on the west coast (mainly salmon farms, but also a few herring spawn-on-kelp operations and fish traps) that allowed them to shoot seals and sea lions that were interfering with their activities. Recently (Canada Gazette 2002), DFO published proposed amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations that would create a new class of license for killing nuisance ‘seals’, which as defined in the regulations includes Steller sea lions. A nuisance ‘seal’ was defined as one that: “a) represented a danger to fishing equipment despite deterrence efforts, or b) based on a scientific recommendation, represented a danger to the conservation of anadromous or catadromous fish stocks because it inflicts great damage to them along estuaries and in rivers and lakes during the migration of those species”.

The Oceans Act introduced in 1996 also provides protection for marine-mammal habitat by allowing for the creation of Marine Protected Areas to protect non-commercial species as well as threatened and endangered species. Indeed, one of the first two pilot MPAs to be established on the Pacific coast of Canada was Race Rocks, in part because it was recognized as an important winter haulout site for Steller and California sea lions. The breeding rookeries on the Scott Islands, as well as several haulout sites, have also been designated as ecological reserves under the B.C. Ecological Reserves Act. The rookery at Cape St. James was formerly also an ecological reserve, but that designation was supplanted when the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve was created under the federal National Parks Act. The Gwaii Haanas Park Reserve is co-managed by the federal government and Haida Nation, and legislation was recently passed that will formally allow the creation of a marine component to the reserve. 

Management of marine mammals in the waters adjacent to BC is a US federal responsibility, and Steller sea lions are protected from disturbance and killing under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Due to the dramatic declines that have occurred in the western part of their range, the western population of Steller sea lions is considered to be depleted under the MMPA, and was listed as endangered in 1997 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (62 US Federal Register 24345, 5 May 1977). Although similar declines have not been observed in the eastern part of their range, the eastern stock has nevertheless been listed as threatened in the US, primarily due to concerns that the declines would spread to the eastern stock (which have not occurred), and due to the preliminary nature of the genetic data used to separate the stocks at the time of the listing (which have since been reaffirmed). The listing of the western stock has prompted a number of management actions to protect Steller sea lion critical habitat, including the creation of 3 nautical mile no-entry zones around breeding rookeries, prohibition of groundfish trawling within 10-20 nm of certain rookeries, and spatial and temporal reallocation and in some cases closure of pollock and Atka mackerel fisheries. A recovery plan has been developed (NMFS 1992) and is currently being revised. There continues to be much controversy and debate over the necessity and effectiveness of such measures.