Feds Give OK to Kill
by Erik Robinson
They've buzzed them with firecrackers, barred them with gates and chased them with boats.
Now federal authorities have granted a request by the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho to kill as many as 85 salmon-munching sea lions beginning this spring at Bonneville Dam.
The National Marine Fisheries Service granted the states' request after three years of intensive springtime hazing failed to dissuade sea lions from congregating in front of Bonneville Dam, where they devour endangered salmon.
Recognizing the public spectacle of sharpshooters blasting the doe-eyed marine mammals, state fishery managers have been dialing zoos, marine parks and aquariums across the country. A Washington official said they've got placements for as many as a dozen of the hulking pinnipeds so far.
"The first option would be relocation," said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Vancouver.
Although federal officials will allow the states to kill as many as 85 sea lions annually, the fisheries service estimates that only about 30 animals will be removed each year. That's because the states can only kill individually identified sea lions that are having a "significant negative impact" on salmon and steelhead protected by the Endangered Species Act.
State and federal biologists estimate California sea lions ate about 3,900 fish at the dam in 2007, which amounts to about 4.2 percent of all the fish that arrived at the dam from January to the end of May.
The timing coincides with the arrival of five threatened populations - Snake River spring chinook, Snake River steelhead, upper Columbia River chinook, mid-Columbia steelhead and lower-Columbia steelhead.
Federal officials suspect the actual number of salmon killed is much higher because some sea lions devoured salmon out of sight of observers at the dam. In addition, the fisheries service reported, fish with scars from sea lions seen passing through fish windows at Bonneville have increased from 11 percent in 1999 to 37 percent in 2005.
The state of Washington will open a two-week public comment period beginning Friday and running through April 4.
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission commended the federal decision to grant a lethal-take permit, while the Humane Society of the United States condemned it. Sharon Young, a Humane Society official who was the lone hold-out in an 18-member task force commissioned to review the states' request, said it's too early to say whether her organization will sue to block the action.
"We'll need to review it before we can make a decision for sure about what course of action to take," Young said.
Young contends that NMFS will have a hard time justifying its contention that the proportion of salmon taken by sea lions at the dam meets the lethal-removal threshold established by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. She noted that state and federal fishery managers permit human fishermen an "incidental take" of 12 percent of imperiled salmon.
"Why is 12 percent not significant and 4 percent is?" she said. "Just because they're sea lions?"
Garth Griffin, a NMFS fisheries biologist in Portland who oversaw the agency's review, said the agency has addressed human harvest and reduced it over time. It has also forced land-use restrictions and expensive fish-passage improvements over dams to help reverse the decline of native wild-spawning salmon and steelhead, he said.
Sea lion predation can't be ignored just because it's small compared some of the other factors for the salmon's decline, Griffin said. "To have a factor for decline that is unaddressed is not acceptable," he said.
Lethal removal would have to occur fairly soon, given that the sea lions begin to drift back toward the ocean after the bulk of the spring chinook run passes the dam.
"It's hard to say when it would occur, or if it would occur this year," said Norman, the state fishery director in Vancouver. "The sea lions will move out of the area by late May, so this will be a short window of time."
The fisheries service requires the states to make the carcasses available for scientific research or educational purposes. Norman said the carcasses could be added to several ongoing studies related to diet, diseases and environmental pollutants the creatures may have accumulated in their muscles or blubber.
Survival of Snake River Salmon & Steelhead data compiled by bluefish.org, July 2004
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