PORTLAND — NOAA Fisheries has released a draft plan for public comment to remove and kill as many as 416 California and Steller sea lions each year in a 180 mile stretch of the Columbia River from just downstream of Bonneville Dam at river mile 112 upstream to McNary Dam at river mile 292.
An application for a Section 120 permit to lethally remove the sea lions — an estimated 144 to 286 California and 105 to 130 Steller sea lions — was submitted June 13 to NOAA by the fish and wildlife departments of the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho and four lower Columbia River Tribes (Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation). The request is for a depredation permit for up to five years.
NOAA put the draft plan out for comment in the Federal Register Aug. 30 and public comments are due Oct. 29.
The Sec. 120 permit application is also for any tributary to the Columbia River that includes spawning habitat of threatened or endangered salmon or steelhead, NOAA says in the Aug. 30 Federal Register.
“This action is intended to reduce or eliminate sea lion predation on the fishery stocks that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973,” it says.
ESA-listed species are Lower Columbia River chinook salmon, Snake River fall chinook, Snake River spring/summer chinook, Upper Columbia River spring chinook, Upper Willamette River chinook salmon, Lower Columbia River steelhead, Middle Columbia River steelhead, Snake River Basin steelhead, Upper Columbia River steelhead, Upper Willamette River steelhead, Columbia River chum salmon, Lower Columbia River coho salmon, Snake River sockeye salmon and Southern Distinct Population Segment of eulachon (smelt).
NOAA and the applicants say that “sea lion predation is having a significant negative impact on the recovery on the above-mentioned fishery stocks. Additionally, the application states that removal of sea lions is also intended to protect species of lamprey or sturgeon that may not be listed as endangered or threatened but are listed as a species of concern.”
Addressing sea lion predation is part of a comprehensive salmon and steelhead recovery strategy, NOAA says.
“As reported in the application, significant actions to address the decline of salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia River basin have been underway for several decades, and are progressing each year as a result of the implementation of ESA recovery plans throughout the Columbia River basin.” NOAA says. “These actions include harvest reductions, hydroelectric system mitigation, habitat restoration, predation management, and hatchery reforms.”
Not everyone favors lethal removing of the pinnipeds. The Wild Fish Conservancy says that habitat destruction, dams and overharvest have far greater impacts.
The Conservancy, which works to recover and conserve wild fish, opposes killing sea lions. The group says habitat destruction, dams and overharvesting have far greater impacts.
Conservancy spokesperson Emma Helverson said that killing sea lions “is a kind of scapegoating when there are a lot of other actions we are choosing not to do that would have a larger impact.”
Sea lions, or pinnipeds, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
However, since 2008 some 92 California sea lions have been lethally removed under such a permit at Bonneville Dam where the predators have targeted mostly spring chinook. The number of Steller sea lions at Bonneville now far outnumber California sea lions, according to a January 24, 2019 report on sea lion predation at the dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In the spring of 2018, the report concludes, sea lions ate 3,112 salmonids (spring chinook and steelhead), 3 percent of the run.
And in 2018, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife received a Sec. 120 permit to remove up to 93 California sea lions at Willamette Falls where they were targeting threatened wild winter steelhead and spring chinook. As of late May, ODFW had removed 33 of the pinnipeds at the Falls.
The new plan now out for review would expand the areas where lethal removal of sea lions is legal; it would allow the tribes to kill sea lions and it includes Steller sea lions, which until now NOAA has not been allowed to be lethally removed.
The Sec. 120 application by states and tribes is the first since Congress passed an amendment to the MMPA in December 2018. That amendment, spearheaded by the Pacific Northwest congressional delegation, passed with strong bipartisan support and offers greater flexibility to wildlife managers when determining if a sea lion should be lethally removed in waters that host ESA-listed runs of salmon or steelhead.
NOAA Fisheries is soliciting public comments on the application and additional information that should be considered by a Task Force that will be making the recommendation. The agency asks that comments are specific:
“In particular, we request information regarding: (1) Observations of sea lion predation activity on salmonids and eulachon within the geographic area established in section 120(f); (2) information on areas where numbers of sea lions are concentrated within the geographic area established in section 120(f), including resting/haul out sites and locations where sea lions have been repeatedly observed taking salmonids and eulachon; and (3) dates when sea lions have been observed within the geographic area established in section 120(f),” the notice says.
The agency also wants to hear from the public the names and affiliations of experts from the academic and scientific community, tribes, federal and state agencies, and the private sector for consideration as potential Task Force members.
Identify comments by NOAA-NMFS-2019-0073 and send to NOAA Fisheries by:
Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal http://www.regulations.gov. Go to https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=NOAA-NMFS-2019-0073, click the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach comments.
Mail: Comments on the application should be addressed to: National Marine Fisheries Service, 1201 NE Lloyd Blvd., Suite 1100, Portland, OR 97232 ATTN: Protected Resources Division, NOAA-NMFS-2019-0073.
Comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted to http://www.regulations.gov without change. All personal identifying information (e.g., name, address, etc.) voluntarily submitted by the commenter may be publicly accessible.