WASHINGTON, D.C. - A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee last Thursday heard testimony pro and con regarding proposed legislation to expedite the process for gaining permission to lethally remove sea lions preying on federally protected salmon in the Columbia River.

The proposed "Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act" would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to authorize the Secretary of Commerce to issue one-year permits for the lethal taking of up to 10 California sea lions.

It would require the secretary first to determine if alternative measures to reduce sea lion predation on threatened or endangered salmonid stocks in the Columbia River adequately protect the salmonid stocks from such predation. If not, it would require the department to respond within 30 days to applications from states and tribes for lethal removal authority.

The bill would limit cumulative annual taking of California sea lions to 1 percent of the annual potential biological removal level of such sea lions. It would waive National Environment Policy Act requirements for the permits.

In opening remarks, Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans Chair Madeleine Z. Bordallo noted that, "There already is a provision in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that was included in 1994 to address salmon predation by sea lions. Section 120 authorizes the Secretary to permit the intentional lethal taking of sea lions. The states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho applied for a Section 120 permit late last year.

"I am interested in learning more about why the existing process is not working," she said.

Washington Rep. Brian Baird, who introduced the legislation last fall along with fellow Washingtonians Doc Hastings and Norm Dicks and Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, said the predation situation is severe and the existing process too painstaking.

"Our limited experience with Section 120 at the Ballard Locks in Seattle demonstrated that the potential for litigation and the volume of data that needs to be collected result in a process that will almost certainly take years. These are years that the salmon population in the Pacific Northwest cannot afford," Baird told the committee.

"I want to make clear that I am personally saddened that lethal measures are necessary," according to Baird testimony posted on the House Natural Resources committee web site. "I certainly do not celebrate the death of any animal. Unfortunately, an endangered species is at serious risk and we have the means to do something about it."

Humane Society opposes changes

Sharon B. Young, Marine Issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, criticized federal agencies for making the existing process longer than it needs to be, and the proposed legislation for suggesting that needed environmental reviews be ignored.

The Humane Society "must oppose this legislation, largely because we believe there are existing mechanisms in federal law to handle the sea lion-salmon conflicts and because the bill would establish a dangerous precedent in short-circuiting NEPA review and in opening up other possibilities for carve-outs for expanded lethal control of marine mammals." Young said.

She said Section 120 contains "fairly short timeframes for expeditious response to applications..." that can be completed in three months' time. The exception is the open-ended process for the Commerce Department's NOAA Fisheries Service to establish a task force to review applications.

"The problem is not that the MMPA Section 120 process is 'protracted' but that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with its implementation, does not follow the deadlines that are established in the Act," Young said.

She noted that the application from the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho was submitted in November, but NOAA's finding on the sufficiency of the application did not appear until January 30, 2007, well outside the MMPA's 15-day timeline.

"Rather than amend the MMPA, Congress needs to insist that the NMFS take its statutory obligations seriously," she said.

"... this Bill would substitute a process that drastically curtails public comment and allows killing of close to 100 random pinnipeds annually who spend time in the river where salmon are migrating," Young said. "At the same time it exempts this process from complying with what is arguably among the most important pieces of environmental legislation that assures the use of the best science and independent review of project and policy proposals."

Fidelia Andy of the Yakama Nation said treaty tribes do not take the "National Environmental Protection Act exemption in this legislation lightly."

"NEPA is a law that we work with on a regular basis," said Andy, chair of Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "However, this is a short term, five year exemption focused exclusively on managing the most aggressive individual California sea lions whose predation severely impacts an entire wild salmon population."

The existing process works, but Columbia predation situation requires a speedier response. She said. Last year sea lions consumed an estimated 4 percent of the spring salmon run in the waters immediately below the Columbia's Bonneville Dam alone.

"We hope for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decision on the task force's recommendations prior to next spring's salmon run; however the real challenge is NOAA's ability to shepherd any decision through the NEPA process. Most policy makers and biologists working on this issue predict the Section 120 will take years," Andy said.

The Columbia Basin Bulletin is an e-mail newsletter produced by Intermountain Communications of Bend, Ore. Visit the Bulletin online at http://www.cbbulletin.com.

She noted that the fish stock the Section 120 MMPA was intended to save - steelhead on spawning runs through Seattle's Ballard Locks - are now functionally extinct.

"At Ballard Locks the sea lions basically wiped out the Lake Washington run of winter Steelhead during a multi-year period in which various interest groups fought against what the professional managers for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife wanted to do, a limited take of the most problematic sea lions," she said.

"We need more options to deal with the growing sea lion depredation and we need timely solutions to protect our ceremonial, subsistence and commercial harvests for salmon, lamprey and sturgeon," Andy said.

John E. Reynolds, III, chairman of the Marine Mammal Commission, said "The Commission agrees with the principle of timely response, but believes that in the Bonneville case, the section 120 process will be completed in time to determine whether, and the extent to which lethal removal authority is warranted, before the salmon runs of concern begin in 2008."

The newly formed task force holds its first meeting Sept. 4 and then has 60 days to deliver recommendations on the lethal removal application to NOAA. The agency has said it will make its decision on the application by March. The NEPA process has begun, but cannot hit full stride until it receives the task force recommendations, according to NOAA officials.

"In conclusion, the Commission supports the special attention being given by this Subcommittee to fish conservation in the Columbia River including the possibility of selective removal of sea lions that are contributing to the problem. However, we do not believe that H.R. 1769 provides a sufficiently robust process for this purpose," Reynolds said.

"If, in the following year we learn of shortcomings in the ongoing section 120 process, then the Commission would be pleased to participate in further discussions to address those shortcomings," he said.

NOAA Fisheries' Northwest regional administrator, Bob Lohn, told the committee that his agency has long recognized that the "process as currently written has been difficult to implement effectively and could be improved. We recognize that H.R. 1769 was introduced to address these kinds of concerns, but the bill, as currently drafted, would neither fully realize the goals of the MMPA, nor meet the objectives expressed in the bill.

"In 1999, NMFS recommended to Congress that the MMPA be amended to, among other things; allow lethal removal of pinnipeds to protect threatened or endangered fish and fish that are species of concern in the affected states and to resolve human-pinniped conflicts other than predation," Lohn said. "These recommendations are still valid, and the Subcommittee should consider a comprehensive approach to the use of lethal measures to manage pinnipeds when Congress takes up the reauthorization of the MMPA."

"The MMPA has provided strong protections for all marine mammals, regardless of their population status, for more than 30 years. Any attempt to modify it to allow removal of pinnipeds, even for essential resource management purposes, will be perceived as reducing protections for marine mammals and thereby weakening the Act," Lohn said. His agency is charged with protecting those mammals listeds under the MMPA and salmon and steelhead that are ESA-listed.

NOAA selects task force to review request to kill sea lions

An 18-person panel of experts has been appointed to review a request for permission to lethally remove California sea lions believed to be having a "significant negative impact" on Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead stocks listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The request from the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington asks that they be allowed to remove as many 80 California sea lions each year from the area just below Bonneville Dam. Federal biologists estimate that sea lions took about 3,500 salmon and steelhead this year, about 4 percent of the spawners set to climb the dam's fish ladders. That take was comprised largely of upriver spring Chinook salmon, which has listed Upper Columbia and Snake river components.

NOAA Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with administering such requests, announced the appointments Thursday.

The task force 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, Sharon, Humane Society of the United States.

The review panel, known formally as the Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force, will hold its first meeting in Portland Sept. 4, and will make a recommendation to NOAA Fisheries Service within 60 days of that meeting. NOAA expects to make a decision about granting the states' request by next March.

A positive recommendation from NOAA would trigger potentially longer processes. The impacts of any action plan would have to be weighed under the standards of National Environmental Policy Act as well as other statutes, including an analysis of ESA impacts.

"We've got our work cut out for us," said Garth Griffin, a supervisory fishery biologist and branch chief for the Northwest Region's Protected Resources Division. A timeframe for those processes, he said, is impossible to calculate.

"It depends on the range of alternatives we analyze," Griffin said. NOAA plans to conduct an environmental review of the actions recommended by the task force along with other alternatives, including a "no-action" alternative, in support of its decision in response to the states' application.

Task force recommendations would likely "describe a range of opinions that would be turned into alternatives" for analysis in the NEPA process, Griffin said. The agency is already beginning to set the stage for that process but can't really determine its scope until the task force has completed its work.

"We're going to do the best we can" in advance of the task force recommendations, he said.

"NMFS expects the Task Force to work together to develop recommendations that document the points of consensus reached by the group as well as the alternate points of view when consensus is not reached," according to a NOAA overview of the process. "Task Force recommendations should fairly reflect the full range of opinion of the group. NMFS expects the Task Force to acknowledge differences of opinion and include minority views with its recommendations."

During its 60-day window, the task force will consider relevant information and recommend to NMFS whether to approve or deny the states' request. If it recommends approval, it must also includes a description of the specific pinniped individuals, the proposed location, time, and method of taking, criteria for evaluating the success of the action, and the duration of the intentional lethal taking authority, according to NOAA. The task force may also suggest non-lethal alternatives, if available and practicable.

Washington, Oregon and Idaho submitted the request in a letter to NOAA Fisheries Service last November.

A 1994 amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the take of seals and sea lions, permits the intentional lethal taking of individually identifiable pinnipeds that are proven to have a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of salmonids listed under the ESA or approaching threatened or endangered status. The state application attempts to document that significant impact.

The amendment, Section 120, gives NOAA Fisheries Service the responsibility of determining where an application warrants formation of a task force. The provision was used once, in the mid-1990s, to address sea lion predation on steelhead at Seattle's Ballard Locks.

Less than a decade ago sea lion predation on returning adult salmon at Bonneville was rare. The number of sea lions grew from six animals in 2001, to 111 and 105 in 2003 and 2004 and numbered 85 in 2005 and 2006.

The Corps study launched in 2001 indicates that the sea lions' predation on salmon has also increased, from 0.35 percent of the total upriver spring Chinook run passing the dam in 2001 (1,010 salmonids) to 3.4 percent or 2,920 salmon in 2005. Last year the sea lions consumed an estimated 2.8 percent of the upriver run just in the area immediately below the dam.

The big pinnipeds begin arriving in the river in midwinter and have exited by June. An estimated 80 individuals were counted by the researchers this year with as many as 54 at the dam on any one day.

The states say affected listed salmon and steelhead include Lower Columbia River Chinook Lower Columbia River, Middle Columbia River, Upper Willamette and Snake River Basin steelhead and Upper Columbia River spring, Snake River Spring/Summer Upper Willamette and Lower Columbia River Chinook salmon.

Steller sea lions, larger cousins of California sea lions, have also been seen at the dam, but they concentrate on adult white sturgeon. No Steller sea lions would be killed if the application is approved. They are considered a depleted species under the MMPA. Bonneville Dam is 145 miles from the mouth of the Columbia.

NOAA Fisheries Service said that efforts to deter sea lions with firecrackers and rubber buckshot had proven ineffective, although the agency said such actions had been effective in deterring Stellers from eating sturgeon, with no documented predation once deterrence efforts began in earnest at the end of February.

In formulating its recommendations, the Task Force is to review public comments received by NOAA Fisheries in response to its Federal Register notice, and also consider:

- population trends, feeding habits, the location of the pinniped interaction, how and when the interaction occurs, and how many individual pinnipeds are involved;

- past efforts to non-lethally deter such pinnipeds, and whether the applicant has demonstrated that no feasible and prudent alternatives exist and that the applicant has taken all reasonable non-lethal steps without success;

- the extent to which such pinnipeds are causing undue injury or impact to, or imbalance with, other species in the ecosystem, including fish populations, and

- the extent to which such pinnipeds are exhibiting behavior that presents an ongoing threat to public safety.

The panel's members have already been provided with comments submitted by the public in response to the Federal Register notice as well as references to research and pertinent data on the status and trends of the California sea lion population, the number of individual pinnipeds and feeding habits at the location of the interaction, and efforts to non-lethally deter pinnipeds involved in the interaction. Information on the status and trends of the salmonid stocks involved in the interaction and impact of predation are also included.

The panel's meetings will be open to the public and the date, time and location of the initial meeting will be published in the Federal Register. The task force will set the schedule for subsequent meetings. The public will not be allowed to discuss or debate issues during working sessions, but will be allowed to provide or identify new or relevant information that may assist the task force in its deliberations.

For more information on the states' MMPA Section 120 request, see:

(http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Seals-and-Sea-Lions/States-MMPA-Request.cfm)

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