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Ecology and salmon related articles

Authority Granted for Killing of
Sea Lions on the Columbia River

by Joel Summer
Curry County Reporter, March 26, 2008

If you think the Rogue River has a sea lion problem, just travel up north to the Columbia River just below the Bonneville Dam.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week gave Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife and Idaho Fish and Game federal authority to remove - through lethal or non-lethal means - California sea lions preying on salmon and steelhead listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) below the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.

However, it is highly unlikely that the authority to kill sea lions will extend to the mouth of the Rogue River any time in the near future, if ever, according to Charles Corrarino, a marine biologist and spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

"The efforts at hazing sea lions on the Rogue have been very effective. We can't justify using lethal force on the Rogue," said Corrarino. "Before we started hazing on the Rogue, the sea lions would get 50-75 percent of the fish caught by fishermen. Now they get maybe 5 percent of the fish."

Corrarino said one big difference between the Rogue and the Columbia below Bonneville Dam is the sheer size.

"The mouth of the Rogue is maybe 200 yards wide and 10 feet deep," said Corrarino. "The Columbia below the Bonneville is a mile wide and 100 feet deep.

Fish and wildlife agencies from Washington, Oregon and Idaho jointly requested the authority in 2006 to use lethal force on the Columbia under the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA-Fisheries approved that request last week on the recommendation of an 18-member federal task force convened last year to review it.

"This federal authorization gives us an additional tool to protect threatened and endangered wild salmon and steelhead runs," said Robin Brown, ODFW Program Leader for Marine Mammal Research. "However, we will first review the Letter of Authorization given to the states today by NOAA Fisheries and over the next week we will finalize our plans based on the details of the authorization."

Corrarino said there will be a number of steps taken first before ODFW resorts to shooting pinnipeds.

"There are about 20 zoos and aquariums that have requested sea lions," said Carrarino. "So we will capture the first 20 or so sea lions to ship them to the zoos and aquariums. The zoos and aquariums pay all the costs for the capture and shipping of the sea lions."

The number of sea lions present at the Bonneville Dam's tailrace in late winter and spring, and their take of listed and non-listed adult salmonoids have increased consistently since research began in 2002 to evaluate impacts, according to NOAA's Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife News Bulletin. The percentage of run taken in any given year varies due to run size, but has risen from approximately 1,000 returning adult salmonids in 2002 (0.4 percent of that year's run) to 3,900 in 2007 (4.2 percent of that year's run).

The prey is predominately spring Chinook salmon.

Until 2001, few seals and sea lions were observed feeding in the area immediately downstream of the Bonneville Dam, but counts jumped from 30 sea lions in 2002 to 108 in 2003.

For the past three years about 80 different sea lions have made the 146-mile trip annually from the Pacific Ocean to the base of the dam. Researchers have tallied 271 separate identifiable individual sea lions over the six-year period.

Federal authorization to remove a California sea lion from the waters below Bonneville Dam carries a number of conditions:

The problem animal must be identifiable through markings;

Documentation must show that it has repeatedly fed on salmon and steelhead; and

Attempts must first be made to deter predation through non-lethal hazing.

The federal authorization also allows for animals to be transferred to zoos and aquariums. "Our initial focus will be to place as many animals as possible," said Brown.

So far, several zoological facilities contacted by NOAA-Fisheries nationwide have tentatively agreed to accept about a dozen Columbia River sea lions, although arrangements have not been confirmed. NOAA-Fisheries must approve such transfers.

For the past three years, hazing crews from ODFW, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission have used flares, rubber bullets and other non-lethal measures in an effort to prevent California sea lions from feeding on ESA-listed fish.

Despite those efforts, the Corps has documented an increasing rate of predation by sea lions immediately below Bonneville Dam, 145 miles up the Columbia River.

For the past four years, up to 100 individual California sea lions have been observed feeding below the dam, most during the peak months of April and May. An adult California sea lion typically eats 5 to 7 salmon a day.

"This is a sensitive situation; we are trying to restore the balance between a protected species and one that is endangered and threatened," said Brown. "However, we have to address this issue, because we have a responsibility to protect threatened salmon and steelhead from increasing predation."

Oregon will not move forward on the federal authorization until the State of Washington completes a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) environmental review.

The review is required by Washington State law and takes approximately two weeks—including a public comment period.

NOAA-Fisheries solicited public comments on the states' request for 30 days as part of an environmental assessment earlier this year.

The Humane Society announced over the weekend that it would file a lawsuit to stop the killing of sea lions.

Related Pages:
Survival of Snake River Salmon & Steelhead data compiled by, July 2004

Joel Summer
Authority Granted for Killing of Sea Lions on the Columbia River
Curry County Reporter, March 26, 2008

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