State officials are hoping that the third time is the charm as regards to their desire to remove salmon-munching California sea lions from the lower Columbia River.
NOAA’s Fisheries Service announced Thursday that it was authorizing Idaho, Oregon and Washington to permanently remove specifically identifiable California sea lions that they believe are having a significant impact on wild salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Under the authorization, the states may euthanize individually identified California sea lions if no permanent holding facility, typically aquariums or zoos, for them can be found.
To see NOAA’s “letter of authorization” and other related documents, go to:
The Commerce Department agency has twice previously issued such an authorization, in March 2008 and again this past spring. The initial decision, after legal proceedings at federal district and appeals court levels, was rejected in November 2010 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
NOAA Fisheries received a second Section 120 application from the states last year and in May issued an approval the agency said fixed the legal flaws noted by the appeals court.
But, with continued legal wrangling, the agency opted in July to revoke the 2011 lethal removal authorization. As a result the Humane Society of the United States voluntarily withdrew the lawsuit it had filed challenging the May NOAA Fisheries decision.
The states in August filed a third application and NOAA announced its approval of the plan this week.
The authorization under Section 120 becomes effective on March 20 and stays in effect until the end of May 2016. The five-day window before removals can begin both allows the states to prepare, and the parties involved in past litigation on the issue to survey the situation.
So far, the sea lion traffic has been light. As of midweek, only five individuals had been seen at the dam so far this year, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Robert Stansell, who heads up research at the dam aimed at evaluating sea lion predation there. Three of those California sea lions are on a federal list of animals identified as having a significant impact on listed salmon and steelhead in past years.
Since research began in 2002 a total of between 30 (in 2002) and 104 (2003) individually identifiable California sea lions have visited the dam each spring. Since 2003 those numbers have ranged from 99 (2004) to 54 (in 2009 and 2011).
The agency has authorized the states to remove up to 92 animals annually, which is 1 percent of “potential biological removal” level calculated by NOAA Fisheries. The PBR is the total number of annual mortalities the California sea lion population can sustain as a result of human-caused actions “without having a negative effect on the overall population,” according to Robin Brown, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s marine mammal project leader.
The current estimated West Coast population of California sea lions is almost 300,000, and biologists say that up to 9,200 animals could be removed from that population through actions such as ship strikes or entanglement in fishing nets, and lethal removals, without harming the species. In a typical year, about 430 California sea lions die from human-caused actions.
State and federal biologists expect that, since the trapping effort below Bonneville has not been greatly effective, only about 25 to 30 would be taken in any year, given the conditions in the authorization. The shooting of animals is permissible under terms of the authorization letter but, due to safety concerns, has not yet been employed as a removal tool.
While acknowledging Thursday that there had been little time to review the new decision and related materials, the HSUS’ Sharon Young said organization was “obviously disappointed.”
“It seems to be continuing on the same path” as past decisions, Young said. The HSUS during litigation has asserted that sea lion removals will do nothing to help salmon recovery – that removed animals will be replaced by other sea lions -- and that the pinnipeds are being improperly scapegoated while other more critical causes of salmon mortality are inadequately addressed.
The animal protection group lists harvest, hydro system operations, and hatchery influence on wild stocks as larger threats to salmon than sea lions, which are natural predators.
An HSUS fact sheet says that the states also have “stocked the river with non-native bass and walleye to please sport fishermen, even though the government estimates these ‘invaders’ consume up to 3 million juvenile salmon each year.
“Sea lions have been turned into that mythical beast, the scapegoat. Rather than helping the fish, killing sea lions simply distracts attention from the government’s failure to address the much larger and real problems facing salmon recovery. The battle to save the sea lions from unnecessary death—and to help the fish by spotlighting the challenges to their recovery that are being ignored—has been a long one, but it is one to which we are deeply committed” the fact sheet says.
Young said the organization would likely not make a decision until at least Monday, the day before trapping and removal of animals could begin, about whether to pursue litigation to stop the state effort. A most likely course of action would be to seek a court-ordered stay, which was sought and denied in U.S. District Court after the first letter of authorization issued by NOAA Fisheries. Soon thereafter a temporary stay was sought and granted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The states are enthusiastic about the new decision.
“We hope we can give this strategy an opportunity to work,” said Steve Williams, the ODFW’s assistant Fish Division administrator. What was scheduled to be a five-year program has since 2008 been stopped and started, including a cessation of removal activities last year. The goal of the program is to remove repeat offenders.
Brown said “If we could do that (remove up to 30 animals annually) for five years in a row we could make a dent in those habitual animals” that are known to visit the dam on multiple years and feed extensively on salmon. The state biologists feel that if they could eliminate the most egregious offenders fewer animals would find their way to the dam.
Even now, “there’s a small fraction of the animals that enter the lower river that are seen upriver,” Brown said.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Guy Norman said “there are a handful on the list just starting to arrive” and state crews are ready to begin a trapping effort at Bonneville. In recent weeks the four floating traps on site have been used to trap and tag and/or mark Steller sea lions for research purposes. Stellers are protect under both the ESA and MMPA are not targets of the planned removal, and nor have they been in the past.
“Our concern is with the uncontrolled predation,” said Norman, director of the WDFW’s Southwest Region. He pointed out that virtually every other cause of salmon mortality – from bird predation to harvest control and hatchery reforms, are being addressed, and reduced, with the goal of bringing recovery of listed salmon stocks.
The sea lion removal program authorized via the 2008 decision was suspended in 2010 as a result of a court order. From 2008 through 2010 the states trapped and removed 38 California sea lions under various agency authorizations. Ten were relocated to captive display facilities and 28 were euthanized.
Relocation is not a likely option, at least at this point. An exploration of interest from zoos and aquariums over the past few months has come up dry.
“Unfortunately, the answer was no,” NOAA Fisheries’ Garth Griffin said of the inquiry through captive display facility organizations.
“We had no homes” identified, though the hope is that facilities will step forward once news gets out about the renewed removal effort, Griffin said.
The sea lion incursions deep into freshwater to prey on salmon is a relatively new phenomenon, -- at least in the such numbers --- witnessed over the past 10-12 years.
And without removal authority, the states, and tribes, that rely on salmon for sustenance, have their hands tied, they say. Attempts to disturb the sea lions predation through non-lethal hazing have proved largely ineffective.
The big marine mammals have over the past 10 years begun to congregate below Bonneville Dam, located at river mile 146, in greater numbers than they had in years past. They find salmon and steelhead milling around the hydro project to be easy prey.
Under the MMPA, states can request permission to kill individually identifiable California sea lions or seals that are having a “significant negative impact” on at-risk salmon and steelhead, and NOAA’s Fisheries Service can grant that permission if certain legal standards are met.
State and federal biologists estimate that California sea lions have eaten between 1 1/2 percent and 4 percent of returning adult salmon in the area immediately below Bonneville Dam each year during the past eight years. The estimates are based on expert observations by federally trained biologists positioned atop the dam, and include only extrapolated data based on observed predation in the area immediately below the hydro project.
Most of the fish observed taken by sea lions were upriver spring chinook or steelhead, and almost a third of the salmon and steelhead eaten by the sea lions are from stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act, according to NOAA Fisheries.
Predation peaked in 2010, when about 6,000 adult salmon were eaten. Last year, about 3,600, or just over 1 ½ percent of the returning adult population, were observed taken by sea lions below the dam. While numbers Steller sea lions also lurk below the dam each spring, they focus primarily on white sturgeon.
The authority allows the states to target only individual sea lions that continue to eat salmon after deterrence methods have proven unsuccessful.
For the past several years, NOAA’s Fisheries Service and other state, tribal and federal agencies have employed a wide range of deterrence methods, including using firecrackers and rubber buckshot, to discourage the sea lions from foraging at the dam. These efforts have been largely unsuccessful.