COLUMBIA RIVER — NOAA’s Fisheries Service said Friday it is re-authorizing the states of Washington and Oregon to lethally remove specific California sea lions that congregate 140 miles from the Pacific Ocean just below the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam to eat adult salmon and steelhead swimming upriver to spawn.

Among those fish are stocks that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. 

“This is not an easy decision for our agency to make, but a thorough analysis shows that a small number of California sea lions preying on salmon and steelhead are having a significant effect on the ability of the fish stocks to recover,” said William W. Stelle Jr., Northwest regional administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “Today’s authorization allows state fisheries and natural resource agencies to carefully remove California sea lions to reduce their effect on vulnerable fish species.” 

Letters of authorization (LOA) dated May 12 were sent to both states saying that NOAA Fisheries had made the decision in accordance with Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

“Once the LOA is out I think our folks are going to take some time to review it,” said Rick Hargrave, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman. If it passes muster, the states could begin trapping and removing California sea lions from below the dam this year, he said. 

“But I can’t give you a timeline on it,” Hargrave said. Time is short, however. The sea lions typically start arriving at the dam in late winter, and leave in late May to head south down the coast for their breeding season.

NOAA initially gave the states authorization in 2008 to “permanently remove” problem California sea lions, including relocating them to zoos or trapping and euthanizing them. A lawsuit filed that year by the Humane Society of the United States resulted in a 2009 federal district court ruling upholding NOAA’s lethal removal authorization. But an appeals court in late 2010 overturned the authorization and sent the decision back to NOAA to better explain its rationale for protecting salmon by removing offending California sea lions.

Humane Society officials have not had time to review the document and discuss legal options. The HSUS’ Sharon Young said her organizations felt the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had found some undeniable flaws in the NOAA authorization.

“What I’ve said all along is that this has been, and still is, nothing more than a distraction” to avoid fixing other, greater causes for salmon mortality such has harvests and hatchery production, Young said.

The decision by NOAA responds to the court’s concerns and gives the states permission under the MMPA to remove, lethally if necessary, individually identifiable California sea lions that have been observed eating salmon or steelhead in the area immediately below Bonneville Dam. The authorization covers removal of up to 85 California sea lions annually, although the agency said it was unlikely that large a number would be taken each year, based on the three years the program has been in effect. The agency’s authorization to the states expires in June 2013, but may be extended.

The Ninth Circuit order said that “NMFS has not satisfactorily explained the basis of its decision.”

“First, the agency has not adequately explained its finding that sea lions are having a ‘significant negative impact’ on the decline or recovery of listed salmonid populations given earlier factual findings by NMFS that fisheries that cause similar or greater mortality among these populations are not having significant negative impacts,” the order said. “Second, the agency has not adequately explained why a California sea lion predation rate of 1 percent would have a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of these salmonid populations.” The 2008 NOAA approval called for sea lion removals to be ended if predation dipped to or below 1 percent of upriver fish run.

The agency says for salmon to recover it was crucial to make advances — even incremental ones — across the broadest possible range of activities that affect their survival, including harvest and hatchery management, habitat restoration, dam operations and control of predators like birds, sea lions and pike minnows.

NOAA, in a related fact sheet released Friday, says that “Section 120 of the MMPA focuses specifically on the narrow issue of pinniped predation on at-risk salmon and steelhead. It addresses an interspecies conflict where, as in this case, one species is healthy, robust and stable, and the other is ESA-listed. 

“All factors that limit salmon recovery must be addressed cumulatively, making even incremental improvement across all limiting factors crucial. The MMPA does not require that predation by itself will jeopardize the continued existence of a salmon species. The salmon death rate caused by sea lions is comparable to death rates from other sources that have led to corrective action. 

“In contrast to harvest impacts, pinniped predation has higher impacts during years with lower fish run sizes which can have extreme effects on population survival. We identified sea lion predation as a new, unchecked, unmitigated and uncontrolled source of salmon deaths,” NOAA Fisheries says. 

“The 1 percent salmonid predation limit is unnecessary. Salmon predation expressed as a percentage of adult returns fluctuates widely with the strength of the run. There is no reason to expect that stopping sea lion removals when predation reaches 1 percent of fish passage would eliminate harmful pinniped-fishery interactions,” according NOAA. “There are many factors that affect salmon, and many salmon populations are affected by sea lions eating them. A single threshold will not cover the wide range of impacts that those factors have on how salmon and steelhead are affected by pinnipeds preying on them.” 

The California sea lion population on the West Coast is considered healthy and stable, and estimated to be a robust 238,000, according to a press release announcing the decision.

Columbia Basin chinook salmon and steelhead, on the other hand, have been listed as protected under the federal ESA since the early 1990s, when their populations were perilously low, according to NOAA Fisheries. In recent years, adults have been returning in better numbers, thanks in part to favorable ocean conditions and improvements to habitat and to the operations of the hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

During the springs of 2008-2010, the states have removed a total of 37 California sea lions from below the dam. Ten were placed in public display facilities, one died while being examined and 26 were euthanized.

Until 2001, few seals or sea lions were observed feeding in the area immediately below Bonneville Dam. However, the past decade has seen a dramatic increase in those visitors, from just over two dozen in 2002 to more than a hundred the following year. In subsequent years, those numbers fell slightly, but were typically in the 70s or 80s each season. And the estimated number of salmon and steelhead eaten by California sea lions also has risen steadily over the same period, peaking at over 5,000 last year. Biologists say the actual number is higher, because many salmon are taken underwater or farther downstream of the dam, outside the observation area.

For more information see the Northwest Region website at:

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