NOAA's Sea Lion Task Force Again Discusses
Some fracturing of support for the lethal removal of predatory California sea lions from the lower Columbia emerged this week during a discussion by the Pinniped-Salmon Interaction Task Force in Portland.
During past multi-day sessions in 2007 and 2010, the task force concluded overwhelmingly that California sea lions should be captured and killed or moved to zoos or aquariums in order to reduce the marine mammals' predation on wild salmon and steelhead stocks that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
During those sessions the Humane Society of the United States' Sharon Young, was the lone voice against the killing of sea lions.
But during Monday's reconvening of the 16-member task force, marine mammal specialist Daryl Boness said he was "leaning against" support for a reauthorization under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington to remove "individually identifiable" California sea lions known to prey on spawning salmon.
"Efforts to kill sea lions are not going to solve the problem," Boness said. It appears, he said, that the effect of removing 40 California sea lions during 2008-2010 has been diluted by the backfilling of other California sea lions, and more and more Steller sea lions that are increasingly preying on salmon.
NOAA Fisheries' senior policy adviser Rob Walton likewise said a sea lion removal strategy may be all for naught. He gave "lukewarm support" for a state proposal to remove as many as 85 California sea lions from the lower Columbia in each of the next five years. Proponents acknowledge that a removal effort would not likely succeed in trapping more than 30 or so of the marine mammals per year.
The states have requested the authority under federal law to lethally remove California sea lions that prey on salmon below the lower Columbia's Bonneville Dam. The task force, called for as part of the Section 120 consideration process, is composed of NOAA Fisheries staff, independent scientists, representatives from affected conservation and fishing communities, tribes, states and others.
"I'm not convinced that the program will work," said Walton, who said he was concerned about "how clear the evidence is on whether it's been effective or not, how clear the facts are."
The 13 other members of the task force convened by NOAA Fisheries were unequivocal in their support of the state plan to trap and remove California sea lions that gather each spring below the dam and feed on, primarily, spring chinook salmon spawners.
Steller sea lions, which are themselves protected under the ESA as well as the MMPA, have not been the targets of past removal efforts. But they have become a growing concern for fish managers because the number of Stellers camping out at the dam has grown steadily in recent years, as has their consumption of salmon. In the early years of monitoring, researchers determined that most of the Stellers' predation was focused on white sturgeon, a species that is not ESA-listed.
"We haven't had the opportunity to remove enough animals to see if the program has been effective," said Bob DeLong, of NOAA Fisheries National Marine Mammal Laboratory and another member of the task force. The states were first granted lethal removal in 2008. But legal wrangling, as well as logistical issues, prevented full implementation of the strategy, the states say.
"I certainly believe we need to have a full opportunity" to see if a sea lion removal effort will work, said Steve Williams, assistant administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Fish Division and a member of the task force. "This problem will continue to get larger and larger and larger" without management.
"I do believe we have had an effect," Williams said of the removals of 40 animals, many of which have been determined by researchers to be most aggressive and successful predators present below the dam in springtime.
The fate of California sea lions that ply the Columbia River to bolster their diet, and to an undetermined degree, spring-migrating salmon and steelhead, now hinges on NOAA Fisheries decision on whether to relax protections of the MMPA.
The task force is charged with providing its recommendations on lethal removal authority to NOAA Fisheries by Nov. 14.
"Once you have submitted your recommendations to us, NMFS will determine a course of action informed by the Task Force recommendations," according to instructions from the federal agency to the task force. "In addition to the Marine Mammal Protection Act process described above, NMFS must also comply with the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and other relevant statutes in considering the States' application. We intend to announce our finding on the States' application by the end of February 2012."
The states originally applied for sea lion removal authorization on Dec. 5, 2006. The MMPA's Section 120 allows under certain circumstances the killing of "individually identifiable" California sea lions that are "having a significant negative impact" on the recovery of threatened and endangered Pacific salmon and steelhead. That application described the believed effect on salmon and steelhead runs resulting from interactions with pinnipeds, and expected benefits from the potential removal of pinnipeds.
NOAA Fisheries in March 2008 issued a letter of authorization, along with a NEPA environmental assessment of the proposed activity. The decision approving the states' application was soon challenged in federal court by the HSUS, and late last year declared illegal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
NOAA Fisheries in May reissued the authorization, saying it had corrected legal flaws noted by the appeals court. But in July the federal agency revoked the authorization and invited the states to apply again. The states submitted a new application Sept. 12.
As many as 100 individually identifiable California sea lions have visited the dam durng the late winter-spring season in recent years. Their fish prey include wild Lower Columbia River, Middle Columbia River and Snake River steelhead and Upper Columbia River spring and Snake River spring/summer chinook that are ESA protected.
The application says that while California sea lion numbers are robust, the salmonid stocks are still well short of recovery.
A key question for NOAA Fisheries, the states and others involved in the debate is whether the predation qualifies as significant, a specification of Section 120. Observed predation in the water immediately below Bonneville has risen to as high as 4.2 percent of the upriver salmonid (salmon and steelhead) run. But HSUS says that sea lion take pales in comparison to allowed mortality from human harvest and Snake-Columbia hydro operations.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Guy Norman, also a panel member, said that with some wild salmon stocks balanced on the edge, all causes of mortality are significant, and that all causes except sea lion predation are being addressed in some manner or another.
"The region has taken an approach… that is analyzed in a comprehensive manner," Norman said. "The bottom line is the whole analysis is related to decreases across the board."
Boness said he agreed with the approach, but that Section 120's significance criteria must be taken into account. The lack of a clear explanation of why sea lion predation on salmon is significant when other greater causes of mortality are not sets any authorization decision up for another lawsuit, Boness said. The Ninth Circuit said that the prior decision did not properly explain how NOAA's decision on significance was made.
NOAA Fisheries has posed more than 800 comments that it received on the states application. Those postings include sampling from an estimated 2,000-2,500 other missives there were mass mailings of identical testimony sponsored by interest groups.
To view comments, go to www.regulations.gov. In the "Enter Keyword" field, enter the docket number, which is "NOAA-NMFS-2011-0216" and click "Search".
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