Tribes Unhappy After NMFS Suspends
by Bill Rudolph
"We're seeing high levels of mortality in the reservoirs," he said.
The federal government has told the states of Washington and Oregon they can't kill any more sea lions this year that could be munching Columbia River chinook.
Not that they were planning on it. The marine mammals near Bonneville Dam have moved on after the spring chinook run petered out, and they probably won't be back until next year.
But in a July 22 letter to state fish agencies, James Lecky, director of NMFS' Office of Protected Services, said "we have evaluated the litigation risks and discussed with your staffs various options for proceeding. In light of the fact that the sea lion activity will be limited until next spring, we have concluded it is in our collective interest to permanently suspend the 2011 LOA and instead consider a new request for 2012."
Last May, NOAA Fisheries gave Washington and Oregon authority to once again lethally remove certain sea lions from the area around Bonneville Dam, where the marine mammals prey on ESA-listed spring chinook. A decision memo that was also released said new data suggested the sea lions may be consuming far more chinook than originally estimated, from 4.2 percent of 2010's relatively large run, to nearly 13 percent of the 2005 run. The previous estimates for pinniped predation in those years were 2.2 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively.
But soon after, the Humane Society filed a lawsuit to once again try and block the drastic action to reduce predation near the dam.
Then on May 25, the states of Washington and Oregon, which are actually trapping the marine mammals, announced they would suspend the lethal removal, but continue to trap and tag sea lions eating spring chinook near the dam.
Lecky acknowledged the states were not pleased with the decision, but said if the states submit a new request, the agency will "immediately" begin to fulfill the statutory requirements, with a final decision by Feb. 29, 2012.
"We're delighted the agency has changed its mind and revoked the State's authorization to kill hundreds of native sea lions for having the audacity to eat fish for dinner," said Jonathan R. Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation for the Humane Society. "It's time to face the fact that killing sea lions doesn't do anything for salmon, and focus instead on real salmon conservation threats, like hydropower and commercial fishing."
It was reported that the feds hope their move will cause the society to drop its latest lawsuit.
Columbia River tribes were not happy about NMFS' action, either. In their own press release, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said they were disappointed. "NOAA's decision to start the entire process over from scratch will expend precious time and resources," said executive director Paul Lumley. "Twice an independent task force has recommended that NOAA authorize lethal removal of sea lions."
This past spring, Corps of Engineers biologists estimated that sea lions at Bonneville Dam consumed less than 2 percent of the spring run, the lowest predation rate in the past several years. California sea lion numbers at Bonneville Dam were lower than previous years, with 47 individuals counted, but 28 of those had been seen in previous years.
The tribes say the marine mammals in the entire lower river eat about 20 percent of the spring chinook run, and NMFS scientists have said that might be the case.
Proposed legislation in Congress would add the CRITFC tribes as entities qualified to "lethally remove" sea lions, not just the states. The proposal would also limit the cumulative level of lethal take to 1 percent on the annual biological removal level, up to 10 animals per permit holder.
"The Marine Mammal Protection Act is broken said Lumley. "Now is the time to address these problems."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted the lethal removal last fall, ruling the action could not continue until the federal agency explained why such drastic tactics were needed when the agency allowed four times as many such fish to be harvested legally by tribal members and non-tribal fishers.
In January a task force recommended a more effective trapping program, with more traps and people to operate them. Since the current lethal-removal program hasn't cut the predation rate to the 1-percent interim goal, a majority recommended using firearms from both boats and land; using boats to recover carcasses and "dispatch" wounded animals; increasing haul-out areas that shooters can utilize; and developing a safety plan so the shooting program from boats will not harm others. Most panel members also suggested the sea lion squad make it easier to identify problem animals and significantly lower the requirements for lethal removal.
NMFS researchers have been tagging adult salmon caught in tangle nets--implanting PIT tags in some, acoustic tags in others, and both in a third group--to evaluate methods that could be used to estimate survival up the river to Bonneville Dam, and possible impacts from sea lions in the entire lower river.
In 2010, after accounting for the fact some fish turn off to other rivers before they reach the dam (about 25 percent were headed for the Willamette River), a 13-percent mortality factor associated with the tangle nets, and a 7-percent harvest mortality for early releases, their initial results point to an unexplained mortality of up to 25 percent from the initial sample of 174 PIT-tagged fish released in 12 groups over the spring.
This year, initial results suggest unexplained mortality up to 15 percent, but that is subject to further analysis.
Survival of Snake River Salmon & Steelhead Data compiled July 2004 by www.bluefish.org
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