Federal government approves killing sea lions in lower Columbia

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SEATTLE — The federal government gave states the go ahead Thursday to resume the killing of California sea lions that feast on threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia River.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service said Washington, Oregon and Idaho agencies can kill up to 92 animals annually for the next four years. The agency expects only 25 to 30 sea lions will actually be killed.

Since 2008, Oregon and Washington have killed dozens of sea lions that travel as many as 140 miles to feed on salmon as they hit the bottleneck of fish ladders at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River east of Portland.

“We don’t take enjoyment in removing these animals,” said Steve Williams, deputy administrator of Oregon Fish and Wildlife’s fish division.

The practice has been opposed by animal rights groups. In 2010, the Humane Society won a court order stopping the killing, but this decision allows it to resume.

“This hardly seems like a situation that requires fatal management,” said Sharon B. Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the U.S.

The states were accompanied by tribes who use the Columbia for salmon.

“The tribes have always recognized that there is a balance between salmon and sea lions that needs to be managed. NOAA’s decision takes an important step in restoring that balance,” said Paul Lumley, executive director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Previous efforts to control the sea lions included shooting them with rubber bullets, chasing them with boats and scaring them with flares. Nothing worked for long.

According to NOAA, the number of salmon eaten by the sea lions peaked in 2010 at 6,000. Last year that number dropped to 3,600, or 1.5 percent, of the total number of returning fish. Biologists say that the fish sea lions eat the most were spring Chinook or steelhead, and almost a third of those fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Williams said those estimates are a bare minimum.

The sea lions are killed with an injection, although the states are allowed to use guns, Williams said. Since 2008, 28 sea lions have been euthanized. Ten have been shipped to display facilities.

The size of the upriver runs of Chinook salmon and steelhead has risen in recent years. The Chinook run in 2010 was 315,000, compared to 178,000 in 2008 when efforts began to curtail the sea lions’ poaching habits. In that same period, estimated runs of steelhead increased from about 15,000 to 20,000.

The state agencies will be allowed to set traps starting Tuesday. The states can only kill the sea lions if the animal can be individually identified and no permanent holding facility, typically aquariums, can be found.

Young, though, said if the recovery of the salmon is the goal, there are other measures the states can take that have more meaningful impact. She says that non-native species of fish that are stocked in the river for recreational fishing eat young salmon. Furthermore, she said, if recovery is the goal, fishing limits shouldn’t be raised just because the salmon runs increase.

“Killing sea lions is not going to do anything meaningful to affect the recovery of the stock,” she said.

There are about 300,000 California sea lions on the West coast, according to NOAA.