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Hearing explores proposed bill to expedite sea lion removal
 August 03, 2007  Columbia Basin Bulletin
A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on 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."

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.

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.

Links to the hearing’s testimony can be found at http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/index.php?option=com_jcalpro&Itemid=32&extmode=view&extid=87

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