BONNEVILLE — The Humane Society of the United States, Wild Fish Conservancy, and two individual citizens filed a complaint in federal court last week seeking to nullify a May 13 NOAA Fisheries Service decision authorizing removal, lethal or otherwise, of as many as 255 sea lions at Bonneville Dam over the next three years. 

“Plaintiffs request that the Court vacate the agency’s procedurally flawed, factially inconsistent and unlawful decision, and enjoin any killing of sea lions at Bonneville Dam until fully complied with the requirements of the MMPA [Marine Mammal Protection Act],” according to the complaint filed in  the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.

The filing renews the legal fight over whether or not the states of Oregon and Washington should be allowed to trap and remove California sea lions that gather below the dam in late winter and spring to feed on salmon spawners. The sea lions are protected under the MMPA and most of the Columbia-Snake river basin’s wild salmon and steelhead stocks are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

NOAA Fisheries in March 2008 authorized lethal take under Section 120 of the MMPA. The states removed a total of 37 California sea lions from 2008-2010. But in November 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a lower court opinion upholding NOAA Fisheries’ decision. 

The appeals panel found 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 Ninth Circuit opinion ordered the district court to vacate NOAA Fisheries March 2008 decision, which it did. It also offered the federal agency the option of attempting to cure the decision’s legal ills. 

NOAA Fisheries said in announcing a new lethal take authorization last week that it had indeed corrected the flaws noted by the Ninth Circuit. The authorization allows the removal of up to 85 California sea lions each year through 2013.

The new decision is also illegal, according to HSUS and Wild Fish Conservancy.

“Federal law allows the killing of sea lions only in very limited circumstances, when the agency proves they are having a significant negative impact on salmon,” said Jonathan R. Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation for the HSUS. “The National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to kill hundreds of native marine mammals to reduce salmon losses by a couple of percentage points, while simultaneously authorizing much larger  man-made sources of endangered salmon mortality, is both outrageous and patently illegal.”

The groups’ complaint says that while blaming sea lions for eating salmon, the states and NMFS have largely ignored recommendations of government scientists to stop stocking non-native fish like bass and walleye and adopting angler regulations that perpetuate their high levels of  predation on salmon. Experts have warned that curbing the impact of these non-native fish is imperative for salmon recovery, according to the groups.

“Blaming sea lions is nothing but a distraction,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “The National Marine Fisheries Service needs to look objectively at dam operation and over-harvest, hatchery practices and the stocking of non-native fish which together kill significantly more salmon and prevent them from reaching high-quality spawning habitat.”

While birds, other fish, sea lions and fishermen all kill salmon, the primary threats are from loss of quality spawning habitat and dams blocking their normal migratory routes up and down river, the groups say. 

They list the major causes of salmon mortality as:

“Dams: NMFS estimates the Federal Columbia River Power System kills 16.8 percent of adult Snake River Basin Steelhead and 59.9 percent of juveniles.

“Hatcheries: In 2010, a Congressionally-mandated science panel found that current fish hatchery practices interfere with recovery and are in urgent need of reform.

“Fishing: The states annually authorize the incidental take of between 5.5 and 17 percent of the Upper Columbia spring Chinook and Upper Snake River spring/summer Chinook.  Additional salmon are killed in ocean fisheries.

“Other Predators: NMFS estimated that bird predators consumed 18 percent of juvenile salmonids reaching the Columbia River estuary in 1998. NMFS scientists also estimate that non-native walleye eat up to 3 million juvenile salmon in the Columbia River.”

“The plan to shoot sea lions coincides with estimates that this spring’s Columbia River salmon run is likely to be the among the largest in almost 30 years while, as of May 2011, the daily number of sea lions at the dam is the lowest since 2003 and the time each animal spends at the dam has been steadily declining,” according to a press release issued last week by the HSUS.

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