Panel to Consider States' Plan
by Erik Robinson
Federal authorities, who have spent the past few years in a frustrating effort to chase salmon-munching sea lions away from Bonneville Dam, announced Thursday that they're getting serious:
They've formed a committee.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has formed an 18-member panel of experts to review a request from the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho to rub out sea lions who have been treating Bonneville Dam like a buffet line.
Forming the panel is the first step in a lengthy process to lethally remove nuisance animals protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
In a related development, U.S. Reps. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, and Doc Hastings, R-Wash., testified Thursday on a bill they've co-sponsored to streamline the process. Bush administration officials support the congressmen's bill.
"The law is cumbersome" said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the fisheries service in the Northwest. "Really, it lacks the flexibility to do effective management."
Over the past few years sea lions have migrated 140 miles upriver from the ocean to target adult salmon at Bonneville Dam. One notorious pinniped scofflaw - known by the brand on his hide as C-404 - has even managed to jump into the dam's fish ladders where startled tourists have glimpsed him in the fish-viewing windows.
A relatively small proportion of a healthy West Coast population of California sea lions are devouring a surprisingly large proportion of Columbia basin salmon. Those fish are protected by a law of their own - the Endangered Species Act.
Robert Stansell, a biologist for the Army Corps of Engineers who works at Bonneville Dam, said observers at the dam watched sea lions gobble 3,859 salmon from Jan. 1 through May 31 of this year. That's about 4.2 percent of all the salmon to arrive at Bonneville.
Lohn and other federal authorities are clearly fed up.
"We're probably talking a population of roughly 100 (sea lions) out of a total population of 230,000 that since 1999 has been at full carrying capacity," Lohn said. "This is a very robust group of critters. Compared to endangered fish runs ? they are capable of wiping these runs out."
The new task force, which includes a representative of the Humane Society of the United States, has 60 days to consider relevant information and recommend whether NMFS should approve the states' petition. Lohn said it's likely that his agency would then have to conduct a separate environmental impact statement.
"A typical environmental impact statement can take 18 months to two years to complete," he said.
That would likely be followed by a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, a Vancouver company recently won a key endorsement from a group of independent scientists for its plan to develop an electronic barrier to zap marauding sea lions.
Smith-Root Inc. is proposing to string an electronic barrier across the Columbia River, combining it with a sonar array capable of distinguishing sea lions from fish. The idea is to activate the electric barrier only when sea lions are present, although company representatives say the low-level electric field wouldn't injure fish even if they happened to encounter it while swimming near sea lions.
The company applied for a $1.4 million grant from the four-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council to test the system. The Independent Scientific Advisory Board, which advises the council, endorsed the project.
The full council will consider Smith-Root's request next month.
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