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Pinniped Task Forces Releases Final Report/Recommendations On Toughening Sea Lion Removal
Posted on Thursday, December 23, 2010 (PST)

The Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force this week released its “final report and recommendations” for improving the effectiveness of a program aimed at lethally removing California sea lions that prey on spawning salmon below the lower Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam.

 

Because of a relatively wide range of opinions on the 18-member panel, a variety of options are outlined in the document. But all but one member expressed the need to strengthen the ability to identify and remove animals that feed, primarily, on salmon and steelhead searching for the dam’s fish ladders. Many of those fish are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

 

The Humane Society of the United States’ Sharon Young, a task force member, has continued to oppose the lethal removal program. She has maintained that the effort, ongoing for the past three springtimes, is doomed to failure and should be discontinued.

 

Young has argued that with small-scale removals, others predators can fill easily in, and that large-scale removals that would be necessary to make the program effective are not appropriate under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

 

The report and related documents can be found at the NOAA Fisheries Service Northwest Region web site:

http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Seals-and-Sea-Lions/Sec-120-TF-Rpt.cfm

Related documents can also be found at: http://www.mediate.com/DSConsulting/pg23.cfm

 

The report is intended to advise NOAA Fisheries Service as it considers whether changes to the authorization are needed before implementation of the next two years of the program. NOAA Fisheries in March 2008 authorized the program, which has been implemented for the most part by the states of Oregon and Washington and lower Columbia River treaty tribes, under Section 120.

 

But the authorization decision was challenged by the HSUS. The NOAA Fisheries decision was upheld in U.S. District Court, but struck down via a Nov. 23 opinion from a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit judicial panel. That opinion was made effective Dec. 15.

 

The Ninth Circuit opinion said that “…we direct the district court to vacate NMFS’s decision approving the states’ MMPA application and remand to NMFS to afford the agency the opportunity either to articulate a reasoned explanation for its action or to adopt a different action with a reasoned explanation that supports it.”

 

The federal agency’s in-house jury is still out. It has 45 days from the effective date of the opinion to ask the appeals court to reconsider the judicial panel’s ruling. Or the agency can launch into a remand with the aim of providing rationalization for the program that is adequate in the court’s eyes.

 

The 45 days is being used to discuss possible courses of action, according to NOAA Fisheries Garth Griffin.

 

“At that point we’ll let the court know what we plan to do,” he said.

 

NOAA Fisheries received a formal request in late 2006 from Oregon, Washington and Idaho to authorize the killing of certain California sea lions that are known to prey on salmon below Bonneville Dam.

 

As a part of the required Section 120 process NOAA Fisheries appointed the task force to consider the states’ application and make recommendations. The task force was reconvened for two-day meetings in late October and in early November to review the accumulated data and evaluate the effectiveness of the program to lethally remove sea lions.

 

The states, which had representation on the task force, admit that the first three years of program implementation have not been as successful as hoped. A total of only 37 animals have been trapped at the dam and removed, and predation on the spring salmon run continues at least 2-3 percent annually. Goals were to remove at least 30 animals per year (and as many as 85) and reduce predation on the salmon run to 1 percent or less.

 

The task force recommendations suggest a number of changes they think would lead to an increase in the number of guilty sea lions that are trapped during the final two scheduled years of the program, if it moves forward. It also suggests three options for easing the criteria by which animals are judged guilty so that more animals are eligible for capture.

 

The states “agreed by consensus” that the state trapping program needs to be more aggressive. To do that the panel suggested:

 

“To increase effectiveness so that reducing predation to 1 percent or less is possible, more animals must be trapped in order to be removed.

 

-- To do this, a more effective trapping program must be in place.

-- This includes: more traps; more people available to work the traps seven days a week; actions to preclude Steller sea lions from impeding use of traps by CSLs; and decreasing other haul out areas.”

 

One of the problems has been the sea lions have too many alternatives -- other than the states’ floating traps – for hauling out of the water. Another has been that the much larger Steller sea lions, which are not eligible for removal, oftentimes crowd the available traps and leave little room for the California sea lions to climb on board.

 

A majority of the task force favored a suggestion that NOAA Fisheries modify its authorization to enhance the states’ ability to use firearms for lethal removals. Their recommendation:

 

-- encourages the use of firearms from land and boat and the utilization of boats to retrieve carcasses in the water and to dispatch wounded animals;

-- advises an increase in haul out areas that are suitable for shooting and/or make current haul out sites more accessible for shooters, and

-- suggests enhanced efforts to lethally remove CSLs. A majority of the task force endorses and encourages the states to develop with the U.S. Army Corps Engineers a safety plan (where needed) for the use of firearms from boats and then use firearms from boats in accordance with the safety plan. The Corps operates Bonneville Dam.

 

“In order to increase the number of marked animals the Task Force recommends using alternative methods (e.g. shooting a streamer into the skin of the CSLs so they are easier to identify categorically as a salmon predator at the dam) in addition to brands to identify animals more quickly.”

 

None of the California sea lions removed so far where shot with a firearm.

 

The task force members, again in majority votes, outlined three options modifying the criteria for identifying California sea lions that will be eligible for lethal removal. All make it easier to add animals to the removal list than the criteria now in place.

 

“Lethal Option A: The following criteria modification is intended to increase effectiveness by enhancing the states’ ability to identify animals for inclusion in the removal program and the ability to increase the rate of removal:

1) Has been documented eating salmon in the Columbia River above Tanner Creek from January 1-May 31 of any year OR

2) Has been observed above Tanner Creek any five days within a season OR

3) Has been observed above Tanner Creek in multiple years.”

 

Oregon’s Tanner Creek enters the Columbia about two miles downstream of Bonneville Dam.

 

Of the 16 voting task force members, six indicated strong support for Option 1 and 5 found it acceptable. Only Young indicated no support for the proposal.

 

“Lethal Option B: The following criteria modification is intended to increase effectiveness by enhancing the States’ ability to identify animals for inclusion in the removal program and the ability to increase the rate of removal, especially during the migration period of ESA-listed adult salmon:

 

Eligibility criteria for lethal removal:

1) If seen during the leading edge of the listed salmonids migration (February 1-April 30), any CSL above Tanner Creek is eligible for removal.

2) If seen during January and after 4/30, use the following to determine eligibility:

-- Has been documented eating salmon in the Columbia River above Tanner Creek from January 1-May 31 of any year; OR

-- Has been observed above Tanner Creek any five days within a season; OR

-- Has been observed above Tanner Creek in multiple years.”

 

Research indicates that chinook salmon that arrived early in the 2010 run were heavily targeted (proportionally) by sea lions. Option 2 was segmented by date in an attempt to make the removal program more aggressive early in order provide more protection for that “leading edge” of the fish migration.

 

Five indicated strong support for Option 2 and five task force members found it acceptable. Two indicated “no support” for Option 2.

 

“Lethal Option C: The following modification is intended to increase effectiveness by enhancing the States’ ability to increase the rate of predatory CSL removal:

 

Eligibility criteria for lethal removal:

1) Zero tolerance in the area above Tanner Creek January 1-May 31 up to the limit of the current LOA. An ‘identifiable animal’ is an animal present at Bonneville in the CSL Exclusion Zone.

2) After May 31, use the following:

-- Has been documented eating salmon in the Columbia River above Tanner Creek from January 1-May 31 of any year; OR

-- Has been observed above Tanner Creek any five days within a season; OR

-- Has been observed above Tanner Creek in multiple years.

 

Seven voters indicted strong support for Option 3 and four found it acceptable. Two voted against the Option 3.

 

 

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