Task Force Recommends Killing More Sea Lions
by Scott Learn
Oregon and Washington should kill more California sea lions at Bonneville Dam next year to test whether the states' 3-year-old controversial "lethal-take" program can actually meet its goal of reducing sea lion consumption of wild salmon, a key task force concluded Wednesday.
The states should shoot the animals, from shore and from boats, instead of just trapping them in cages and killing them by lethal injection, 15 of 16 members of the Pinniped Fishery Interaction Task Force said.
And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the lethal-take program, should make it far easier for California sea lions to qualify for the lethal-take list, a majority of the task force said.
The two states have killed or removed 40 California sea lions since 2008, counting four that accidentally died in traps that year. But the animals' estimated consumption of salmon clustered near fish ladders at the Columbia River's first dam -- also known as the "Bonneville buffet" -- grew from 3,846 in spring 2007 to a record of 5,095 in spring 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports. Those numbers include wild salmon and steelhead protected under the Endangered Species Act.
A majority of the task force said killing more California sea lions could improve results, with one referring to the steps so far as "half measures." When the program began, wildlife managers expected to remove at least 30 of the animals a year (federal biologists capped the take at 85 a year). Instead, removals have averaged just more than 15 a year, focusing on the sea lions shown to be eating the most salmon.
Dennis Richey, a task force member and executive director of Oregon Anglers, said shooting the sea lions in the water and as they haul out near the dam would be much more effective than trapping the animals in riverbank cages and killing them by injection in a separate room. In the long run, he said, shooting would reduce the number of animals killed.
"We believe that sea lions are incredibly bright," Richey said. "If they saw that this is a dangerous place, they would leave. But if we humanely remove them, the next most dominant animal just moves into that area."
The lethal-take program, requested by Oregon, Washington and Idaho, is the first in the nation to kill sea lions to save threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead since Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. The Columbia is home to a multibillion-dollar salmon restoration effort.
The task force includes representatives of government agencies involved in the lethal-take program and fishing interests. Sharon Young, the Humane Society's marine issues field director, was the only member to vote against shooting sea lions and the only one to vote in favor of ending the lethal-take program.
"The program isn't going to work because (the river) is an open system," said Young, whose organization has sued to stop the killings. "You take out animals, more come in. It's not making a difference. It's not helping fish."
NOAA has allowed the states to shoot sea lions, but the states haven't done that. It's not clear if that's because of restrictions placed on shooting near the dam or the states' desire to avoid the negative publicity -- complete with videotape -- sure to follow a shooting. Activist groups are stationed around-the-clock at Bonneville during the spring season, when male sea lions make the 140-mile swim up the river to dine at the dam.
As the rules stand today, to be put on the lethal-take list, a California sea lion has to be seen eating salmon at the dam between Jan. 1 and May 31, be identified at the dam for five days and be shown to return after it's subjected to nonlethal hazing. Steller sea lions also eat salmon near the dam, but they're listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and can't be killed.
A task force majority recommended several options for putting more California sea lions on the lethal-take list. Gathering the most support: an option that would allow killing any California sea lion seen near the dam during spring migration.
It's unclear whether a provision that broad could survive a likely legal challenge. The lethal take is allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but only of individual animals shown harming listed fish.
The recommendation goes next to NOAA, which will decide whether to incorporate it into new rules for the states or keep the status quo.
Sea lions at Bonneville Dam
1937: President Franklin Roosevelt dedicates the first federal dam on the Columbia and Snake river system.
1972: Marine Mammal Protection Act bars killing sea lions and other marine mammals. Until the late 1960s, Oregon had a bounty on sea lions.
1990: Steller sea lions on the West Coast listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
1991: First Columbia River salmon run listed under the ESA (13 runs now listed).
1994: Amended law allows killing mammals not ESA-listed if they significantly impact threatened or endangered salmon or steelhead.
2000: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered to address sea lions eating salmon at Bonneville.
2002: Sea lion monitoring begins.
2006: Gates with bars installed to keep sea lions out of fish ladders. Oregon, Washington and Idaho apply to the federal government to kill certain California sea lions. Fishery managers haze sea lions with shotgun-fired firecrackers and rubber bullets.
2007: Pinniped task force recommends killing California sea lions seen eating salmon at the dam. Federal officials approve lethal take of up to 85 a year. Report says California sea lions have recovered from about 1,000 in the 1930s to about 238,000, the population's "carrying capacity."
2008: Six California sea lions trapped, relocated to Sea World; one dies under anesthetic and four (along with two Steller sea lions) die from heat exhaustion after being stuck in traps, stopping the program for the year.
2009: 11 California sea lions killed and four relocated to a Chicago aquarium and a Texas zoo.
2010: 14 California sea lions killed. Typically, sea lions leave to breed by the end of May, shortly before the spring chinook run ends.
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