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Lawsuit Seeks to Save Sea Lions

by Dean Baker
The Columbian, March 25, 2008

NORTH BONNEVILLE - A new front opened Monday in the expanding war of sea lions versus salmon.

The Humane Society of the United States, Wild Fish Conservancy and two citizens filed suit in U.S. District Court in Portland to halt the authorized killing of sea lions at the base of Bonneville Dam.

The conservationists argue that the National Marine Fisheries Service was wrong in ruling last week that some sea lions can be shot if they won't stop eating salmon that congregate below the dam. The lawsuit alleges the fisheries service has failed to show the hungry sea lions have a significant impact on salmon runs.

But Congressmen Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, and Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, both said the killing is necessary to save salmon runs. They spoke in favor of plans to shoot as many as 85 sea lions annually, killing only those animals that can't be driven away from the rich feeding waters.

The fisheries service order encourages trapping the animals if possible and relocating them to sea parks, aquariums or similar facilities. Those that can't be stopped in any other way would be destroyed.

The congressmen boarded boats below the dam Monday with leaders of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. With news reporters present, they surveyed hazing that's been going on for three years in an effort drive the sea lions away. The hazing involves chasing the animals with boats and blowing up nonlethal cracker shells around them.

Hazing just hasn't been effective enough, said Baird. Charles Hudson and Jaime Pinkham of the tribal fish commission backed him up.

"It makes us sad to kill these animals," Baird said. "But we're spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars in spilling water over dams and upgrading hatcheries to restore salmon runs. And the sea lions are killing at least 4.2 percent of all the fish that arrive at the dam."

"Last time we tried spilling water, it cost $50 million to $100 million to save 300 fish," he said. "Nobody set out to say, 'Let's go kill sea lions.' There is no desire to do that," he said. "But these are creatures that have evolved to live in tidal zones."

State and federal officials said the California sea lions ate about 3,900 fish at the dam in 2007.

The sea lions are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. The lawsuit alleges that the fisheries service decision should be set aside because it violates the act by authorizing the killings without determining whether the predation is having a "significant negative impact on the decline or recovery" of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

"The problem is a lawsuit can take several years to resolve, and meantime you are losing the 4 percent and that's just the visible take, and just at Bonneville," Baird said. "We believe some estimates are substantially higher than that, and every time you lose a female, you've lost a couple thousand eggs."

A task force decided 17-to-1 last year to recommend granting an exemption to federal law protecting the marine mammals after efforts to scare them away failed. It would allow the sea lions to be trapped, tagged and studied. The animals that are repeat offenders would be offered to zoos, but when all else failed, they would be destroyed.

There would be no arbitrary killing of animals. Only those sea lions that clearly could not be stopped would be destroyed, said Steven Jeffries, a research scientists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Humane Society and others contend that the sea lions are only one of many pressures on the salmon runs and that factors such as hydroelectric dams, bird predation and environmental deterioration cause worse problems.

Oregon and Washington will not act on federal authorization to kill the sea lions until Washington completes an environmental review, expected about two weeks after a public comment period ends April 4.

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

Dean Baker
Lawsuit Seeks to Save Sea Lions
The Columbian, March 25, 2008

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