Some members of the Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force argued this week that it’s time to liberalize the rules of engagement to enable the removal of more California sea lions from below the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam during the next two years than have been removed annually since 2008.
“If we’re going to do anything short of a full court press we’ll be back here in two years,” Carl Scheeler of the Umatilla Tribes said of a state sea lion removal program that has fallen short of goals – to reduce predation on migrating salmon to 1 percent of the spring run – and is set to expire after the spring 2012 season.
The chief opponent of the lethal removal program, the Humane Society of the United States, said it’s time to drop the program and focus on other factors that cause salmon mortality, such as the hydro system, hatcheries and non-native fish that prey on salmon
“The goal of the program was to reduce predation and help in the recovery of salmon. It is not doing either,” said Sharon Young of the HSUS. The returning spawners in springtime include salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“There will always be new arrivals to take up the slack,” Young said of the California sea lions that follow the salmon runs inland in springtime and gorge themselves on fish that stall before finding fish ladders that climb up and over the dam.
Scheeler and Young are both members of the 18-member task force assembled by NOAA Fisheries in 2007 to formulate recommendations about whether lethal removal authority should be granted the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington under section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The task force, following a 17-1 vote, in November 2007 recommended that lethal removal authority was justified and laid out criteria on how the program should be carried out.
Among its recommendations was that the task force be reconvened after three years to review the available data and evaluate the effectiveness of the program to lethally remove certain sea lions. NOAA adopted that recommendation in its letter of authorization to the states and this fall called together the task force – representing the academic, scientific and conservation communities, tribes and federal and state agencies.
The task force met Monday and Tuesday in Portland, and will meet again Nov. 9-10. Once it completes its deliberations, the task force will submit its recommendation to NOAA Fisheries. The federal agency will then decide a course of action – whether to continue the program unchanged for the next two years, whether to modify the removal authority and/or terms of the letter of authorization or to determine that the permitted lethal removals have been effective and disband the task force.
The states themselves say that the program should continue, but with modifications. In three seasons (March 1 through May 31) at total of 40 California sea lions have been trapped, including 37 below Bonneville and three at Astoria, Ore., near the river mouth, and removed. Ten were accepted by zoos or aquariums, 22 were euthanized and five died accidentally. The approval allowed the removal of up to 86 animals yearly though NOAA Fisheries predicted that the states would probably be able to capture and remove 30 of the big marine mammals at best in any given year.
Historically only a handful of California sea lions ventured as far upriver as Bonneville each year. The male sea lions venture north from their breeding grounds off the Southern California coast in winter and spring to forage.
But at the turn of the century, more of the pinnipeds began to make the trip up the Columbia, perhaps drawn by what were among the largest spring chinook returns in modern history. The uptick prompted monitoring of the sea lions at the dam to evaluate what impact pinnipeds were having on salmon runs, which have had peaks and valleys in the years since.
Since 2002 researchers have charted the number of individual California sea lions that prey on salmon each year (from 59 to just over 100) and how many fish they are observed eating. Since 2006 the adjusted salmon consumption estimates have ranged from 2.4 percent of the salmon passing Bonneville this past spring to 4.7 percent in 2007. The percentage of the run that is consumed by sea lions each year is greatly affected by the size of the run.
Despite falling short of the goal of reducing predation to 1 percent, “I believe we have been successful” given the constraints under which the program is operated, Steve Williams of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said. The task force member noted that many of the California sea lions trapped and removed were among the most regular visitors to the dam and the animals observed taking the most fish.
“It could have been worse,” Williams said of predation this year if those animals remained in the water. He said the states were disappointed that that it was unable to trap as many animals as they wanted.
“Maybe what we may need to do is add more traps,” he said. Williams also suggested adjustments should be made to the criteria used to judge whether a particular animal becomes eligible for removal.
The criteria outlined in NOAA Fisheries’ approval letter said an individually identifiable California sea lion must:
-- have been observed eating salmonids in the "observation area" below Bonneville Dam between Jan. 1 and May 31 of any year; AND
-- have been observed in the observation area below Bonneville Dam on a total of any five days (consecutive days, days within a single season, or days over multiple years) between Jan. 1 and May 31 of any year; AND
-- are sighted in the observation area below Bonneville Dam after they have been subjected to active non-lethal deterrence. NOAA Fisheries asked the task force to consider five sets of questions, three to which were on the table this week.
A proposal that emerged Tuesday was to pare the criteria to having seen a sea lion eating salmon below the dam OR having seen an animal at the dam for five days. The more liberalized criteria would likely expand the list of eligible animals and thus increase the odds that more eligible animals would haul out to rest on the states’ floating traps.
“Getting (eligible) animals on the trap is really the bottleneck,” said Robin Brown, Marine Mammal Project leader for the ODFW and a technical adviser for the task force.
Task force member Tom Loughlin, a marine mammal scientist, noted the proposed changes eased the qualification for removal, “which I am not necessarily in favor of.”
Under the existing criteria, “They had to be repeat offenders. It wasn’t a one-time deal,” Loughlin said.
Salmon for All board member Bruce Buckmaster, also a task force member, said the proposed modifications did not make qualification rules liberal enough. Salmon for All is an association of gill netters, fish buyers, processors and associated businesses.
“We cannot meet our goal with this criteria,” said Buckmaster who, like Scheeler, feels an aggressive approach is needed to remove as many of the predators as possible in hope that their number will not be replenished by California sea lions that are, at this point, ignorant of the Bonneville buffet. Scheeler said the removal program’s goal is two-pronged – to reduce predation and to remove saavy sea lions that would in future years lead their mates upriver.
The Humane Society’s Young argued that Bonneville predation “is a very different situation than what Section 120 was written to correct.” Section 120, an amendment to the MMPA, was written in direct response to California sea lion predation at Ballard Locks in Seattle where much fewer pinnipeds were involved and the situation was manageable with the removal of just three animals.
Daryl Boness, a member of the Marine Mammal Commission, said the suggested modifications actually swing the criteria back towards the criteria recommended by the task force in 2007. NOAA Fisheries approval made the criteria more demanding.
Boness said that he agreed with other task force members that the Section 120 removal program “is likely to fail in the long run.” But, he said, the effort deserves to play out over the next two years.
“I’m not ready to give up on this approach,” Boness said, as a way of reducing one of the factors that limits salmon recovery.
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