Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

St. George Reef Lighthouse restrictions are likely to ease

A federal agency announced last week that eastern Steller sea lions will be taken off the threatened species list, a move that should make life easier for local folks behind restoration efforts at St. George Reef Lighthouse six miles off the coast near Crescent City.

Steller sea lions' protected status required the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society to obtain a stringent permit for all operations conducted on the 144-foot-tall lighthouse.

"This is fantastic news for us," said Terry McNamara, work coordinator for the society.McNamara was not sure how the delisting would apply to the society's permit, but he was certain the delisting "makes it tremendously easier for us."

The sea lions, whose range stretches from Alaska's Panhandle to California's Channel Islands, are the first animal to be delisted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 19 years.

The last animal delisted was the eastern North Pacific gray whale, which was taken off the threatened list in 1994, NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.

The lighthouse group's restoration work and public tours via helicopter - which fund the restoration - were confined to November to April, when ocean weather is usually the harshest, McNamara said. The group could only visit the structure once a month for a three-day period with no more than 15 people at a time - conditions that all stemmed from the Steller sea lion, McNamara said.

He hopes that at a minimum, the group will now be allowed to do restoration work for a week at a time.

Dr. Dennis Wood, director and founder of the North Coast Marine Mammal Center, accompanied the society to St. George Reef Lighthouse as its marine observer, another permit requirement rooted in Stellers' protected status.

"It's been a huge burden for (the society) over the years with all of the extra permitting and having to save a place for me on the helicopter," Wood said.

There were concerns that marine mammals on the rock that holds the lighthouse would scurry away as the helicopter approached, possibly trampling and even killing Steller sea lion pups, Wood said.But during years of observing, Wood said the animals would hardly budge at the sight of the helicopter.

Steller sea lions are not that common on the North Coast, Wood said, with his marine mammal center only rehabilitating one Steller every two years from Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

NOAA earlier this year recommended delisting the eastern population of the Steller sea lions, an action sought by the states of Alaska, Washington and Oregon. Commercial fishermen also protested fishing regulations because of the listing.

"We're delighted to see the recovery of the eastern population of Steller sea lions," Jim Balsiger, administrator of NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Region, said in a statement announcing the delisting. "We'll be working with the states and other partners to monitor this population to ensure its continued health."

The delisting does not affect the status of the western population of the Steller sea lions, whose range goes from Cape Suckling, Alaska, to Russian waters. They remain on the endangered list.

The agency estimated there were about 18,000 animals in the eastern population in 1979, and the population was listed as threatened in 1990. In 2010, the latest year a count was available, the agency estimated just over 70,000 of the Steller sea lions.

The decline in the population was blamed on fishermen and people on other boats or on shore shooting the animals because they were a nuisance and killing fish.

Significant safeguards remain for the sea lions, Speegle said by phone from her office in Juneau.

"While they are being removed from the list of threatened and endangered species, they are still provided a good measure of protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act," she said.

When an animal is delisted, the Endangered Species Act requires a monitoring plan that covers five years. NOAA has decided to double that length of time to monitor the sea lions.

"We are just proceeding carefully and cautiously to ensure that this species can be maintained in the recovered status," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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