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Roar of sea lion in Alaska's frigid waters is heard less

Environmentalists clash with commercial fishermen over protections for an endangered species

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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.

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