Feds OK killing of sea lions at Bonneville Dam

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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The federal agency that manages both salmon and sea lions said Friday it is authorizing the states of Washington and Oregon to kill specific California sea lions that congregate below Bonneville Dam and munch on adult salmon and steelhead as they swim upstream to spawn.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service said the authorization complies with a ruling last November by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court said the fisheries service must explain why it found it necessary to kill a natural predator that preys on federally protected salmon and steelhead while allowing fishermen to kill an equal or greater proportion of wild fish runs.

The court’s ruling effectively blocked the fisheries service’s waiver of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which protects the sea lions from harm.

“This is not an easy decision for our agency to make, but a thorough analysis shows that a small number of California sea lions preying on salmon and steelhead are having a significant effect on the ability of the fish stocks to recover,” said William W. Stelle Jr., Northwest regional administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service., in a statement. “Today’s authorization allows state fisheries and natural resource agencies to carefully remove California sea lions to reduce their effect on vulnerable fish species.”

Stelle noted that the California sea lion population on the West Coast is considered healthy and stable and is estimated to be a robust 238,000. On the other hand, he said, Columbia Basin chinook salmon and steelhead have been listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act since the early 1990s, when their populations were perilously low.

In recent years, adults have been returning in better numbers, thanks in part to favorable ocean conditions and improvements to habitat and to the operations of the hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The agency said that for salmon to recover it was crucial to make advances--even incremental ones--across the broadest possible range of activities that affect their survival, including harvest and hatchery management, habitat restoration, dam operations and control of predators like birds, sea lions and pike minnows.

Sharon Young of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the groups that challenged the killing of sea lions in court, was still reviewing NOAA’s findings at midday Friday and said it was too soon to know whether her organization would file a new challenge.

“Regardless of what they say, the fundamental fact remains that this is not a meaningful action to help salmon recovery,” she said. “If this is about recovering salmon, what they need to do is address the issues of hatchery and harvest reform that were made by a congressionally mandated blue ribbon science panel last year.”

Since 2008, the two states have removed a total of 37 California sea lions. Ten were placed in public display facilities, one died while being examined and 26 were euthanized.