An 18-member "Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force" this week voted by an 17-1 margin to recommend approval of an application from the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington for authority to lethally remove California sea lions that feast each spring on salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia River.
That recommendation will be forwarded to the NOAA Fisheries Service, which would ultimately decide whether or not to approve the application. NOAA's Garth Griffin said the agency hopes to make that determination in March, "in time for the next round of conflict."
A final task force report, now being fine-tuned, must be forwarded to the federal agency by the end of the day Monday. It will contain two options that outline parameters for lethal removal of the large pinnipeds. Appended will be a minority report from the lone dissenter, the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes granting the states lethal take authority under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The task force recommendations will be posted on NOAA's web site soon after their receipt, Griffin said. He asked people to "look at it for what it is," a first step in a federally mandated process.
The MMPA charges the task force with producing a recommendation, along with a description of the specific pinniped individual or individuals, the proposed location, time, and method of taking, criteria for evaluating the success of the action and the duration of the intentional lethal talking authority. It also must suggest non-lethal alternatives, if available and practicable, including a recommended course of action.
The law requires that Secretary of Commerce, represented by NOAA Fisheries, to approve or deny the application within 30 days of receipt of the report. That timeline is not realistic, however, given the agency's responsibilities under two other federal laws -- the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, Griffin said.
The agency expects to produce a draft environmental assessment by January. Following a two-week public comment the agency will complete the NEPA requirements and make a finding on the states' application. That assessment will weigh the task force recommendations as well as other alternatives, including a no action alternative.
"If it's approved it can move on to implementation," Griffin said. He noted, that with federal agencies operating fixed budgets under congressional continuing resolutions, no implementation funding is in sight if the application is approved.
State biologists at the task force meetings this week in Portland made an admittedly ballpark estimate of $1 million annually for removing California sea lions, research and monitoring and related activities.
The MMPA's Section 120 gives the task force 60 days from the date it first convenes to produce a recommendation. During its initial meeting Sept. 4-5 in Portland, the group reached a near consensus that California sea lion predation does have a "significant negative impact on the decline or recovery on salmonids listed under the Endangered Species Act…," a Section 120 standard that must be met before an exemption to the MMPA's take moratorium is allowed.
During the 60-day period the task force convened for three two-day sessions.
Listed Snake River spring/summer chinook and steelhead and Upper Columbia spring chinook and steelhead are among the stocks forging their way upriver to spawn during the spring. In recent years, a growing number of California sea lions have also found their way upriver and planted themselves at the base of Bonneville Dam.
Observed sea lion predation in the waters immediately below the dam alone accounted for an estimated 4.1 percent of the total salmonid run passing the dam last spring. No estimates are available regarding the sea lions' predation in the 145 river miles between the dam and the river mouth.
The application from the states' fish and wildlife agencies to Secretary of Commerce proposes legal removal of California sea lions above Columbia River Navigation Marker 85 (approximate river mile 139.5), annually from Jan. 1 to June 30. Any lethal removal activity will be preceded by a period of non-lethal deterrent activity (e.g., acoustic and tactile harassment), followed by an evaluation period, according to the states.
The application also asks authority to remove all individually marked California sea lions that have been documented feeding on salmonids at Bonneville Dam "without restriction to time or location in the river," according to the application. It asks for authority to remove as much as 1 percent of the Potential Biological Removal (PBR) level for California sea lions (current PBR level is 8,333 animals out of an estimated population of 237,000)." That PBR is an estimate of the annual mortality that could occur without affecting the overall health of the California sea lion population.
"They both meet the intent of the application," Guy Norman said of the options approved by the task force. Norman represented the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on the panel. The task force members come from state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, Indian tribes, science and fishing associations and included representatives of the Marine Mammal Commission and Oregon Zoo.
One task force option (preferred by 10 members and acceptable to 17 of 18) says to remove the minimum number of California sea lions necessary affect and reduce the number of pinnipeds recruited to the area below Bonneville, where the salmonids mill before mounting the dams fish ladders.
That "blue/purple" option set as an interim goal of reducing sea lion predation in the observation area blow the dam to a rolling three-year average of 1 percent of the salmonid run. "Identifiable" (marked, tagged, branded or identifiable natural markings) California sea lions observed taking salmonids below Bonneville could be killed anywhere down to Navigation Marker 85, about five miles below the dam, under the option.
The blue/purple option would allow the killing on the spot of sea lions seen eating salmon in the "protected area" below the dam, and would allow "notorious" California sea lions to be taken anywhere except at their Southern California rookery. Notorious animals are defined as those individuals that are identifiable and have been observed taking at least 30 salmon or observed in at least three different years in the area upriver of NM 85.
The "green" option (preferred by 7 of 18 members and acceptable to 15 of 18) sets as a goal reducing California sea lion presence above NM 85 and reducing predation on salmonids to 0.5 percent. Like the other option, it says to remove the minimum number of sea lions necessary to achieve its goal.
The green option calls for "zero tolerance" in a sea lion exclusion zone from Bonneville Dam down to a line extending from the Hamilton boat ramp (WA shore) straight across the river to a point 100 yards down from Tanner Creek. It would allow lethal removal of up to 2 percent of PBR and the targeting of any California sea lions in the area down to NM 85 and of "highly identifiable" animals anywhere in the river.
"We're pleased with the outcome and look forward to prompt approval by the Secretary of Commerce and NOAA with plans to implement in 2008," Olney Patt, Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said after being briefed on the proceedings and outcome. All four CRITFC member tribes, and the organization itself, were represented on the task force.
"We commend the states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon for making this application," said Patt, whose organization had pressed the states for three years to apply for lethal take authority. "The task force members brought strong issues and insights to the table. Each matter received thorough and satisfactory vetting."
Sharon Young of the Humane Society said neither option was acceptable and doubts the applicability of Section 120 to the Columbia River situation. The section was designed to provide a swift, sure solution to negative fish-pinniped interactions.
"I don't see that this is anything but an eternal need," Young said, with more lions likely to flood in to replace their fallen mates.
"I don't want sea lions killed to no purpose," she said.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council supports the recommendations to be forward to NOAA.
"The Northwest has devoted considerable effort to protect, enhance and recover salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin," Council Chair Tom Karier said. "Safe passage for these fish at Bonneville Dam is essential to ensure the health of these species. The Council believes that a reliable and timely mechanism must be available to the fish and wildlife managers to enable them to remove predatory California sea lions when they represent a significant danger to the health and improvement of a listed species."
Researchers say that California sea lions were only occasional visitors to the dam from the late 1930s, when Bonneville was built, through most of the 1990s. Their growing presence in the late 1990s and early this decade drew the attention of the NOAA Fisheries Service, which triggered research by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into the pinnipeds' eating habits.
The number of individual sea lions identified at the dam peaked in 2003 and 2004 at slightly more than 100. During the past three years from 70-80 California sea lions have turned up at the dam, for visits short and long. Many of the pinnipeds return year after year.
The task force membership includes:
-- Daryl Boness, Marine Mammal Commission;
-- Bruce Buckmaster, Salmon for All;
-- Jody Calica, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation;
-- Robert Delong, NOAA Fisheries Service National Marine Mammal Laboratory;
-- Patricia Dornbusch, NOAA Fisheries Service Northwest Region Salmon Recovery -- Division;
-- Doug Hatch, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission;
-- Tom Loughlin, Independent Marine Mammal Scientist;
-- Debrah Marriott, Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership;
-- Barry McPherson, Oregon Chapter, American Fisheries Society;
-- Guy Norman, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife;
-- Joe Oatman, Nez Perce Tribes;
-- Dennis Richey, Oregon Anglers;
-- Carl Scheeler, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation;
-- Tony Vecchio, Oregon Zoo;
-- Paul Ward, Confederated Bands of the Yakama Nation;
-- Steve Williams, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife;
-- Bob Willis, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and
-- Sharon Young, Humane Society of the United States.