Leaders of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission's member tribes expressed support Thursday for NOAA Fisheries’ decision to authorize the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington to permanently remove California sea lions that travel up the Columbia River each spring to prey on returning salmon spawners.
NOAA Fisheries’s authorization is aimed at protecting salmon and steelhead stocks that listed under the federal Endangered Species Act by removing California sea lions that have been identified as having a significant negative impact on the wild fish.
“We applaud the states for taking swift action in their application and NOAA for their authorization,” said Paul Lumley, executive director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “The tribes have always recognized that there is a balance between salmon and sea lions that needs to be managed. NOAA’s decision takes an important step in restoring that balance.”
Predation by California sea lions on threatened and endangered salmon populations at Bonneville Dam has been a concern of the tribes since 2002 when 30 different sea lions were counted at the dam feasting on the salmon before they could ascend the fish ladders. The sea lions’ total kill of salmonids has reached levels that demanded management actions, the tribes say.
Biologists estimate that sea lions eat 16 to 20 percent of the salmonids between the river mouth and Bonneville Dam, according to a tribal press release. Researchers have estimated that the pinnipeds take from 1 to 4 percent of the spring chinook salmon run in the waters immediately below the dam, which is located 146 river miles from the Pacific.
The 2012 adult return to the Columbia is forecast to number 314,000 upriver spring chinook -- fish headed for hatcheries and tributary spawning grounds above Bonneville in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
The tribes says that with that large of a return, sea lions could consume 50,000 to 60,000 spring salmon in that long stretch of river from the mouth up to Bonneville Dam. Minimum predation estimates used in the permit are based only on the daytime feeding that is directly observed from Bonneville Dam itself.
The tribes have been actively involved in many different aspects of addressing sea lion predation on listed salmon. The tribes serve on the Pinniped Fishery Interaction Task Force, actively haze sea lions away from the dam, conduct research to understand predation impacts in the lower river, and are working with Congress to pass the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, the press release says.
The Pinneped Task Force, which included state, federal, tribal and private experts with knowledge about marine mammals, was convened by NOAA Fisheries to advise the agency regarding the states’ lethal removal request.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who has long supported efforts to control sea lion predation on the Columbia, also weighed in positively regarding NOAA Fisheries decision.
“I am pleased that today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service authorized the permanent removal of the aggressive, non-native California sea lions at Bonneville Dam,” Hastings said.
“Every year, Northwest residents spend hundreds of millions of dollars to protect salmon runs in the Columbia River only for California sea lions to gorge themselves on endangered fish,” according to Hastings. “With all other methods exhausted, lethal removal of the most aggressive sea lions is the only option to deter predation and I am welcome this decision so states and tribes finally have the necessary tools to help endangered salmon and recoup more of our region’s substantial investment.”
In October of 2011, the House Committee on Natural Resources passed HR3069, the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act with a bipartisan vote of 29-13. Hastings says the bill will allow for the issuance of state and tribal permits to lethally remove increasing predatory, non-ESA listed sea lions that consume thousands of endangered salmon and other fish species in the Columbia River and their tributaries.
The legislation was introduced by Hastings, who serves as the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and co-sponsored by Reps. Norm Dicks D-Wash., Jaime Herrera-Beutler, R-Wash., Kurt Schrader D-Ore., Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, and Greg Walden R-Ore.
The proposed legislation would accelerate the NOAA’s approval process for permitting lethal take by states and tribes; limit the cumulative level of lethal take to 1 percent of annual biological potential removal level; limit the lethal take to 10 animals per permit holder; and spur the Secretary of Commerce to report on any additional legislation needed to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act within two years.
“The tribes have been encouraging the Senate to take quick action, like the House has, to clarify the Marine Mammal Protection Act through this legislation,” said Lumley. The bi-partisan Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act is a direct response to the fisheries management needs of the states and tribes, he said.
NOAA’s authorization would allow the states to begin removal on March 20, which coincides with the beginning of the spring chinook run at Bonneville Dam.
For more information on sea lion predation at Bonneville Dam visit the CRITFC's sea lion page http://www.critfc.org/sealion/sealion.html. The website provides links to a fact sheet, video of predation, hazing activity, and photos of damage done to migrating salmon by sea lions.