Sea lions get reprieve



Federal fisheries authorities have lifted their authorization for Oregon and Washington to kill sea lions eating endangered salmon at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River while a legal challenge from the Humane Society of the United States works its way through court.

In a letter dated July 22, James H. Lecky, director of the Office of Protected Resources for NOAA Fisheries, told Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife agencies they can apply for a new authorization for next year.

“We have evaluated the litigation risks and discussed with your staffs various options for proceeding,” Lecky wrote. “In light of the fact that sea lion activity will be limited until next spring, we have concluded it is in our collective interest to permanently suspend the 2011 (authorization) and instead consider a new request for 2012.”

Steve Williams, assistant chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said they would apply for a new permit, and expected to get it.

“It’s a disappointing, frustrating situation for us in the state, but it appears to be the best course of action at this point in time,” he said. “We believe that removal of the animals at the dam has been effective.”

Since 2008, Oregon and Washington have killed dozens of sea lions that feed on salmon migrating upriver to spawn in the spring as they hit the bottleneck of fish ladders over Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River east of Portland.

Arguing that the dams and overfishing kill more salmon than sea lions, the Humane Society won a 9th U.S. Court of Appeals ruling last year that NOAA Fisheries had not properly justified its decision to take lethal action.

Last May, NOAA Fisheries authorized the two states to resume killing sea lions, saying it had complied with the court ruling.

The Human Society went back to court, and the states agreed to voluntarily suspend the program because most of the sea lions had left for the year. Only one was killed.

Humane Society lawyer Ralph Henry said they expected a tougher evaluation of the new applications, but if they are approved, they will be back in court.

A 2010 task force concluded the program had not been effective at reducing the numbers of threatened and endangered salmon eaten by sea lions to less than 1 percent, and suggested improving trapping so more sea lions could be removed.

Federal law allows sea lions to be killed only if the government proves they are having a significant negative impact on salmon.