The states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington late last week submitted an application to NOAA Fisheries requesting a new authorization under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to lethally remove California sea lions known to prey on imperiled salmon stocks below the lower Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam.
The application dated Aug. 18 is the second filed by the states, who say they want to reduce predation that blunts efforts to recover salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. An application submitted in November 2006 was approved by NOAA Fisheries in March 2008.
But that authorization was deemed invalid late last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. NOAA Fisheries in May reissued the authorization, saying it had corrected legal flaws noted by the appeals court. But in July the federal agency revoked the authorization and invited the states to begin the Section 120 process anew.
The states say the authorization is needed.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Steve Williams, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife assistant Fish Division administrator. He said the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission has stressed the need to “address this predation issue.”
Section 120 says that, once an application is received, the Secretary of Commerce has 15 days to decide if there is "sufficient evidence" to warrant establishing a Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force to consider the situation described in the application. A decision to create a task force would be followed by a notice in the Federal Register requesting public comment on the application.
The application is posted online at:
The MMPA says that a state may apply to the Secretary to authorize the intentional lethal taking of individually identifiable pinnipeds which are having a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of salmonid fishery stocks.
If a task force is created, it would have 60 days to produce a recommendation regarding whether or not the application should be approved or denied. The secretary would then have 30 days to approve or deny the application.
Section 120 says that the task force should be composed of “scientists who are knowledgeable about the pinniped interaction that the application addresses, representatives of affected conservation and fishing community organizations, Indian Treaty tribes, the States, and such other organizations as the Secretary deems appropriate.”
National Environmental Policy Act requirements, such as the development of an environmental assessment, also would need to be fulfilled.
The new application says that under the previous authorization the states “made real progress at removing the most dominant sea lion predators that occurred in the area below Bonneville Dam.
“It is critical to reinstate this predator control program so that this form of salmonid mortality can be addressed along with all other sources of loss that are managed by the states and the federal government.”
The application notes that the congregation of California sea lions below the dam each spring is a relatively new phenomenon. The pinnipeds, almost entirely male, forage north each fall following their breeding season off the coast of southern California and in Mexico. Until about 10 years ago, few of the California sea lions wandered as far inland as Bonneville Dam, located about 146 river miles from the Pacific. But in recent years as many as 100 of the big marine mammals have settled in below the dam each year to pick off spawning salmon and steelhead milling around in search of a passage route.
Among the affected salmon and steelhead are wild Lower Columbia River, Middle Columbia River and Snake River steelhead and Upper Columbia River Spring and Snake River spring/summer Chinook that are ESA protected.
The application says that while California sea lion numbers are robust, the salmonid stocks are still well short of recovery.
“Direct observation of sea lion predation on salmonids in the area within ¼ mile has documented a loss of more than 1,000 salmonids, increasing to a loss of more than 5,000 fish in 2010,” the application says. “It is important to note that these are minimum estimates of the number of salmonids lost to California sea lion predation in the lower Columbia River.
“Additional observation in other areas throughout the river and bioenergetic modeling demonstrate that these estimates are just a fraction of the total number of Columbia River and Snake River (Columbia Basin) salmonids taken by California sea lions each year.”
“As stated in the original 2006 application, the States' contend that salmonid predation by California sea lions at Bonneville Dam represents a significant negative impact on the recovery of ESA-listed populations of Columbia Basin salmonids,” the application says. “Predation by California sea lions below Bonneville Dam is a recent, growing, and unmanageable (without removal authority) source of mortality, whereas other sources of in-river mortality are actively managed, and are stable or decreasing (e.g., through harvest reductions, fish passage and habitat improvements, and hatchery reform).
“Furthermore, the hydromodification of the river has altered the natural predator-prey relationship to artificially favor predatory California sea lions. It is not the States’ contention that California sea lion predation is more significant than other sources of mortality to Columbia Basin salmonids, but simply that it is a new and significant source of mortality that must be dealt with as are other sources of mortality to Columbia Basin salmonids that have prompted corrective action under the ESA.”
The Humane Society of the United States, which challenged the legality of the previous authorization, has said that the states are unfairly scapegoating the pinnipeds and failing to address other, larger causes of fish mortality. The Ninth Circuit in rejecting NOAA Fisheries 2008 authorization decision said that the agency did not adequately explain why the sea lion impacts on salmon were deemed significant in light of other, permitted salmon take.
During the first three years of authorization (2008-2010) a total of 37 qualifying California sea lions were permanently removed from the Columbia River: 10 were placed in permanent captivity, one died during a health exam, and 26 were chemically euthanized, according to the new application. An additional three California sea lions that had not yet qualified for removal died accidentally during trapping operations in 2008, bringing the total to 40 California sea lions over the three year period.
A task force convened prior to the 2008 authorization by a majority (17 out of 18 members) concluded that California sea lions were having a significant negative impact on the recovery of Columbia and Snake River salmonids and recommended that NOAA Fisherie sapprove the states' Section 120 request.