The Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force appears set to recommend that the rules allowing the removal of California sea lions from below the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam be eased so that more animals can be trapped and/or killed, and that an available but unused tool – firearms -- be employed in the future.
The panel met last week and in a two-day session in late October to evaluate a “lethal removal” program that has been in place for three years and recommend a course of action for the next two years. The program goal is to reduce the pinnipeds’ predation on spawning salmon and steelhead to minimal levels.
The task force is now shaping recommendations that are closer to the ones its members made in 2007 than to the rules that actually guided the program from 2008-2010.
NOAA Fisheries Service considered the task force’s 2007 recommendations before granting in March 2008 lethal removal authority to the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The intent is to reduce California sea lions predation each spring on steelhead and salmon spawners searching for a route up and over the dam. Bonneville is located 146 river miles from the mouth of the river. The authority comes under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The 18-member panel (16 participated during last week’s two-day meeting) was convened in 2007 and again this year by NOAA Fisheries Service, which has the legal authority to consider whether lethal take is allowed and sets the rules of engagement. The agency must make sure that any lethal take program complies with the mandates of Section 120 of the MMPA, according to NOAA Fisheries’ Garth Griffin.
The federal agency has asked that the task force recommendations be submitted by Dec. 15. The panel last week completed draft recommendations.
In granting the states lethal removal authority in March 2008, NOAA Fisheries settled on more stringent requirements for removing an animal than had been recommended by the task force. The federal agency required three strikes for a California sea lion to become eligible for lethal removal – it had to be seen eating salmon in the area immediately below the dam, and have been seen there on at least five days, and have been known to return to the dam after being subjected to non-lethal harassment or hazing there.
The task force, following a 17-1 vote, in November 2007 had decided that lethal removal authority was justified and laid out criteria on how the program should be carried out. The lone dissenter was Sharon Young, who represents the Humane Society of the United States. The task force includes representatives of the academic, scientific and conservation communities, tribes and federal and state agencies
Among the rules suggested by the task force in 2007 was a spontaneous or “kill on the spot” criteria in certain circumstances and an “any CSL” eligibility requirement in the five miles below the dam in years when the salmon run size is particularly low.
But the panel’s top choice in 2007 (“preferred” by 10 members and “acceptable” to seven others) for determining removal eligibility offered a list of seven criteria, any one of which would qualify an animal. The criteria included seeing an identifiable sea lion eating salmon in the area below the dam, or just being seen on seven or more days at the dam.
Firearms were listed in NOAA’s letter of authorization as an appropriate tool for the “take” of sea lions.
The MMPA restricts removals to “individually identifiable pinnipeds” that are having a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of at-risk salmonids.
The sea lions’ prey includes winter steelhead and spring chinook salmon stocks that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Few California sea lions traveled as far upriver as Bonneville historically, but in recent years they have been gathering in larger numbers below the dam each spring.
The interim program goal for removal activities is to reduce California sea lion predation in the observation area below Bonneville to a 3-year average of 1 percent or less of adult salmonids within six years. The expanded totals compiled by observers/researchers at the dam from Jan. 1 through May 31 were 2.8 percent, 2.1 percent and 1.9 percent respectively in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Since researchers began collection sea lion predation in 2002, consumption has been as high as 4.2 percent (in 2007).
In terms of sheer numbers, “observed” California sea lion consumption was the highest it has ever been over the course of the research – 5,095 salmonids – this year. The pinnipeds zeroed in on what was the largest spring chinook salmon return since 2002.
The authority allows the removal of as many as 85 California sea lions in each year of the program. But the states, and NOAA Fisheries, figured that 30 was a more realistic goal.
The reality is that only 40 were removed over the three-year period. Of the total, 37 were captured in floating traps below Bonneville and three were trapped at Astoria, Ore., near the river mouth. Ten of the California sea lions were accepted by zoos or aquariums, 25 were euthanized and five died accidentally.
Members of the reconvened task force last week debated the effectiveness of the removal program so far given the fact that fish consumption had actually risen despite the removal of 40 sea lions, and it had failed to reduce predation to 1 percent or less of the salmon run.
Doug Hatch, representing the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said last week that the program “has not been as effective as we’d like to be,” but stressed that predation would have been even higher if not for the removal of 40 animals.
But retired marine mammal scientist Daryl Boness pointed out that reducing predation to 1 percent was the program’s stated measure of effectiveness.
“You’ve killed sea lions. That isn’t the goal,” Boness said. “The goal is to reduce consumption. It hasn’t reduced consumption.”
Sandra Jonker, representing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that the five-year program’s effectiveness cannot be judged after only three years.
Draft recommendations completed last week include language that urges the states to take advantage of the authority they now have to use firearms, and also recommend that the states be allowed to take California sea lions from boats as well as from shore at base of the dam.
The 2008 letter of authorization from NOAA Fisheries says “free-ranging individually identifiable predatory sea lions may be shot by a qualified marksman when hauled out on the concrete apron along the North side of Cascade Island, on the flow deflectors along the base of the dam's spillway, or in the water within 50 feet of the concrete apron or the face of the dam at power houses one and two. In all cases the marksman must shoot from land, the dam, or other shoreline structures.”
State officials said during last week’s meetings that the opportunities to use firearms have been few because of safety and security concerns at the federally owned hydro project. Following the granting of authority in 2008 the states worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the project, to develop rules by which the shooting of sea lions at the dam might take place.
The result is a process that requires “the use of a trained marksman, a biologist experienced with identification of known predatory sea lions, and a Safety Officer provided by USACE,” according to the states’ Oct. 18 “Field Report: 2010 Pinniped Management Activities At and Below Bonneville Dam.”
“However, opportunities for use of firearms were extremely limited in 2009 and 2010 due to sea lion haul-out patterns. In both years sea lions repeatedly used sections of the apron and rip-rap below the Corner Collector that would not allow use of firearms. Only on one or two occasions were known predatory animals observed in locations and at times where firearms could have been used.”
The protocols also limit lethal removals by shooting to before 7 a.m. and after 5 p.m.
“It’s really a restricted opportunity,” said Robin Brown, Marine Mammal Project leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and a technical adviser for the task force.
Young said that sea lion removals, with or without firearms, is not going to solve the problem.
“You take out animals and more come in,” she said. She likened the program to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s not going to make any difference in the end.”
“It’s having no meaningful effect on the recovery of salmon. It’s not helping the fish in any meaningful way,” Young said. She urged fishery managers to turn their attentions to other factors that are limiting salmon populations, such as nonnative predators like bass and walleye.
Bruce Buckmaster, representing Salmon for All and commercial fishing interests, said he did not believe there would be an endless stream of California sea lions forging their way upriver each spring, and that removing those are so prone could eventually reduce predation. He advised a strengthening of the program.
“My concern is that we have done this by half measures” so far, Buckmaster said.
David Shepherdson, representing the Oregon Zoo, said that, in the end, “I doubt this is going to work, but I think we’re obligated to test it.”
The task force during its Nov. 9-10 meeting in Portland cast votes to include three sets of criteria in its recommendation to NOAA, all with more liberal provisions than now exist for deciding which animals will be eligible for removal during the next two years. Young voted against all three.