NOAA Fisheries Service on Monday announced it has accepted the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington’s application for renewed authorization under Marine Mammal Protection Act to lethally remove individually identifiable California sea lions that are preying on protected salmon in the lower Columbia River.
“We determined that the Aug. 18 joint application from Idaho, Oregon, and Washington contains sufficient evidence to reconvene a task force for further investigation into the interaction between sea lions and Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead” in the lower Columbia River below Bonneville Dam, according to the federal agency.
That investigation begins with a public comment period. Comments on the application and other relevant information related to pinniped predation at Bonneville Dam must be submitted by Oct. 12.
Following a public comment period, NOAA Fisheries will convene a “pinniped-fishery interaction task force” to review the application, public comments and other information. A Sept. 12 Federal Register notice says that task force will meet in October.
The task force will, as required by the MMPA, be comprised of NOAA Fisheries staff, independent scientists, representatives from affected conservation and fishing communities, tribes, states and others. The task force will develop a recommendation about whether or not the Commerce Department/NOAA Fisheries should approve or deny the states’ application.
The states submitted the application under Section 120 of the MMPA to remove California sea lions known to prey on salmon stocks below the lower Columbia’s Bonneville Dam. The application is the second filed by the states, who say they want to reduce predation that hinders efforts to recover listed salmon and steelhead stocks.
An application submitted in November 2006 was approved by NOAA Fisheries in March 2008. Seventeen of the eighteen members of a task force convened in 2007 supported lethal removal of California sea lions while one member, representing the Humane Society of the United States, opposed the states’ application and any lethal removal.
But that authorization was deemed invalid late last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The HSUS and Wild Fish Conservancy were plaintiffs in the litigation.
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.
A total of 40 California sea lions were removed from 2008-2010 when the authorization was in place.
“We recognize that there are many causes for the decline of Pacific salmon and steelhead, and we must address all of them,” according to NOAA Fisheries. A total of 13 wild Columbia-Snake river salmon and steelhead stocks are ESA-listed. NOAA Fisheries is charged with enforcing both the ESA and MMPA.
“We cannot ignore any of the limiting factors on our quest for recovery. We remain concerned about the impact of some California sea lions on ESA-listed fish, which is why it’s so important that we continue to address this problem,” NOAA Fisheries said in announcing its acceptance of the states’ application.
When it revoked the authorization the federal agency said that if it received a new application it would “immediately begin to fulfill the statutory requirements, with the goal of making a final decision no later than February 29, 2012.”
California sea lions have over the past 10 years have congregated in springtime below Bonneville Dam to feast on, primarily, spring chinook salmon spawners searching for the hydro project’s fish ladders. Among the prey are wild salmon and steelhead that are ESA protected, as well as lamprey, white sturgeon and other fish.
The states’ application says that the gathering of California sea lions below the dam each spring is a relatively new phenomenon. The pinnipeds, almost entirely male, swim north in search of food each fall following their breeding season off the coast of southern California and in Mexico. Until the turn of the century, few of the big pinnipeds wandered as far inland as Bonneville Dam, located about 146 river miles from the Pacific.
But, coincident with particularly large salmon returns in the early 2000s, the sea lions began trooping upriver. As many as 100 of the California sea lions have settled in below the dam in recent years to snatch salmon and steelhead below the dam.
Among the affected salmon and steelhead are listed wild Lower Columbia River, Middle Columbia River and Snake River steelhead and Upper Columbia River spring and Snake River spring/summer chinook.
The application says that while California sea lion numbers are robust, the salmonid stocks are still well short of recovery.
Monday’s Federal Register notice says that NOAA Fisheries is “also including, for the public’s consideration and comment, our proposed interpretation of the MMPA standard ‘significant negative impact’; a list of the factors we propose to consider in deciding whether that standard is met; and our proposed interpretation of what is meant by ‘individually identifiable pinnipeds’ that are having a significant negative impact.”
The HSUS in legal proceedings and during past task force discussions has said that the states, and NOAA Fisheries, are improperly scapegoating the pinnipeds and failing to adequately address other, larger causes of fish mortality such harvest and Columbia/Snake river hydro system operations. The Ninth Circuit, in rejecting NOAA Fisheries 2008 authorization decision, said that the agency did not adequately explain why it the sea lion impacts on salmon were judged to be “significant” in light of other, permitted salmon take.
The MMPA’s Section 120 specifies that lethal removal can only be granted for individually identifiable pinnipeds that are known to have a “significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.”
See the Fisheries Northwest Region website at http://go.usa.gov/0Ed
to view the application and historical information on this issue.