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Sea Lion Task Force Summary Completed; NOAA Decision On Lethal Take Expected In February
Posted on Friday, November 18, 2011 (PST)

Consideration of a state request to lethally remove California sea lions from the lower Columbia River nudged forward this week with completion of a summary of discussions held Oct. 24 by the Pinniped Fishery Interaction Task Force.


NOAA Fisheries will now review the summary as well as other materials before deciding whether or not to approve lethal take authority for the states Idaho, Oregon and Washington under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


The Section 120 process requires the formation of the task force, which is to consider relevant information and recommend to NOAA Fisheries whether it should approve such Section 120 applications.


The federal agency has said it expects to complete the process sometime in February.


The summary report can be found at:


The states say they are concerned that unprecedented sea lion predation below Bonneville Dam may hamper efforts to recover salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Until the past decade few California sea lions wandered inland as far as Bonneville Dam, which is located 146 river miles upstream from the Columbia’s mouth. But in recent years as many as 100 big marine mammals have plied the river in springtime to feed on spawning salmon that are searching for the dam fish ladders.


When asked their positions on whether they support the lethal removal program requested in the states’ 2011 application, 14 of the 16 task force members assembled last month said yes.


The Humane Society of the United States’ Sharon Young again stressed her organization’s opposition to the proposal. Those objections were first expressed during the process leading up to NOAA Fisheries’ March 2008 letter of approval for sea lion removals and “finding of no significant impact” under the National Environmental Policy Act. The states had first filed an application under Section 120 in December 2006.


Joining Young this time was marine mammal research scientist Daryl Boness, who said during the meeting he was “leaning against” support for the removal program. Young was the lone dissenter noted in a November 2007 report on task force proceedings held that year to consider the 2006 application.


Boness said he did not believe based on the data available that efforts to kill California sea lions are going to solve the problem and therefore they should not continue under Section 120.


Overall sea lion consumption of salmon is increasing for a variety of factors, he said. Among them is the fact that Steller sea lions are taking up the slack for California sea lions removed in 2008-2010.


“The bottom line is that in conjunction with killing ca. 40 CSL there has been increased salmonid consumption by CSL, increased salmonid consumption by SSL, and greater numbers of SSL at the dam such that the combined abundance of CSL and SSL at the dam is unchanged over the past 4-5 years,” according to the summary of Boness’ comments made during the Oct. 24 meeting


“Acceptable methods for lethal removal under Section 120 will not get us there (including no ability to address SSLs and the fact that the biggest contributor to variation in percent of run size that is taken by sea lions is the size of the run, which has varied from ca. 85,000 to ca. 280,000),” Boness said. “The current data do not allow unambiguous evidence to support an interpretation that killing CSLs is working or will work to reduce salmonid predation.”


Young continued to stress that, not only is the removal program doomed to failure but that Section 120 is not the appropriate tool for dealing with predation at Bonneville Dam, and that other sections of the MMPA might be more appropriate, as suggested in the comments of the Marine Mammal Commission.


Section 120 was created to address a situation where a small number of animals were involved in a confined space, she said, while at Bonneville there are “new animals coming and going, and the confounding factor of SSL predation in the same area,” according to the summary. Young suggested that the states should consider a waiver under the MMPA or a transfer of management authority as a more appropriate tool in a situation like the Columbia River.  


“She has repeatedly stated that the states and NMFS still have not adequately addressed other significant threats to recovery including from inadequacies in hatchery and harvest management and the stocking of non-native fish predators, many of which have been pointed out by outside experts; the agencies continue to permit much greater levels of mortality from other sources (e.g., dams and fisheries) and they need to further address non-lethal measures,” according to the summary.


Others casting votes included:


-- Bob DeLong, NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center, in favor of continuing the program;

-- Barry McPherson, American Fisheries Society, in favor of continuing the program, feels more strongly than before;

-- Paul Ward, Yakama Nation, supports continuing the program;

-- Joyce Casey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supports the states’ application;

-- Chris Hathaway, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, support the previous task force recommendation and the current States’ application;

-- Carl Scheeler, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, supports the application;

-- Jody Calica, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, strong support for the application;

-- Rob Walton, NOAA Fisheries, lukewarm support for continuing the program;

-- Bruce Buckmaster, Salmon For All, strongly support the application;

-- Joe Oatman, Nez Perce Tribe, support the application;

-- Dennis Richey, Oregon Anglers Association, strongly support the application;

-- Guy Norman, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, support the application;

-- Steve Williams, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, support the application;

-- Doug Hatch, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, support the application.


The states’ application asks for authority to lethally remove individually identifiable predatory California sea lions that are having a significant negative impact on ESA-listed salmonids. That language mirrors requirements of Section 120 that describes animals eligible for removal.


“We define such animals as having natural or applied features that allow them to be individually distinguished from other California sea lions and:

-- have been observed eating salmonids at Bonneville Dam, in the "observation area" below the dam, in the fish ladders, or above the dam, between January 1 and May 31 of any year;

-- have been observed at Bonneville Dam on a total of any 5 days (consecutive days, days within a single season, or days over multiple years) between January 1 and May 31 of any

year; and

-- are sighted at Bonneville Dam after they have been subjected to active non-lethal deterrence,” the application says


“The States will not lethally remove more than one percent of the potential biological removal (PBR) level annually and will continue to pursue non-lethal alternatives that reduce both sea lion predation on salmonids and the number of sea lions removed.” That amounts to about 86 California sea lions.


Due to court related activities and accidental sea lion deaths in 2008, the removal program was implemented for only a part of the spring season that year. The California sea lions typically begin arriving in the late winter, just in time to welcome the beginnings of a spring chinook salmon run that builds to a peak in late April or early May.


The removal program operated in full in 2009 and 2010 during the spring season, but stalled again in 2011 because of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s Nov. 2010 decision striking down NOAA Fisheries 2008 authorization decision. Since the 2008 authorization, a total of 37 California sea lions have been permanently removed from below the dam.


According to NOAAA Fisheries Garth Griffin the court invalidated NMFS’ March 2008 MMPA Section 120 authorization, but upheld the agency’s accompanying NEPA analysis. In 2011, after receiving a request from the states, the federal agency reissued the authorization at the end of the season but then revoked that authorization in July 2011. Thereafter, the states submitted a new application in August for the 2012-2016 period.


For background information see:


CBB, Oct. 28, 2011, “NOAA’s Sea Lion Task Force Again Discusses Lethal Removal Below Bonneville Dam”


CBB, Oct. 14, 2011, “Report: ESA-Protected Steller Sea Lions Show Increased Presence, Salmon Take In Lower Columbia”


CBB, Nov. 23, 2010, “Appeals Court Rejects Lethal Removal Of Salmon-Eating Sea Lions; Remands Issue Back To NMFS”


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