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Assessment of Competition between Fisheries and Steller Sea Lions in Alaska Based on Estimated Prey Biomass, Fisheries Removals and Predator Foraging Behaviour.

ABSTRACT

A leading hypothesis to explain the dramatic decline of Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) in western Alaska during the latter part of the 20th century is a change in prey availability due to commercial fisheries. We tested this hypothesis by exploring the relationships between sea lion population trends, fishery catches, and the prey biomass accessible to sea lions around 33 rookeries between 2000 and 2008. We focused on three commercially important species that have dominated the sea lion diet during the population decline: walleye pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel. We estimated available prey biomass by removing fishery catches from predicted prey biomass distributions in the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska; and modelled the likelihood of sea lions foraging at different distances from rookeries (accessibility) using satellite telemetry locations of tracked animals. We combined this accessibility model with the prey distributions to estimate the prey biomass accessible to sea lions by rookery. For each rookery, we compared sea lion population change to accessible prey biomass. Of 304 comparisons, we found 3 statistically significant relationships, all suggesting that sea lion populations increased with increasing prey accessibility. Given that the majority of comparisons showed no significant effect, it seems unlikely that the availability of pollock, cod or Atka mackerel was limiting sea lion populations in the 2000s.