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October 12, 2007

A panel of experts this week pondered which California sea lions might be made to pay the ultimate price for plundering spring chinook salmon returning to the Columbia River.

The 18-member task force is charged with recommending whether or not the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington should be authorized for the "intentional lethal taking of individually identifiable pinnipeds which are having a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of salmonid fishery stocks…."

If the group recommends the lethal take authorization, it must define which sea lions can be taken, and where, when and how, according to Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Options mulled Tuesday and Wednesday ranged from allowing the lethal take of California sea lions that are clearly identifiable by brands or other physical markings and who are repeat visitors to Bonneville Dam to an all-out effort to remove as many of the animals as possible in the first year (as many as 170), marked or not.

The group this worked this week to apply Columbia River definitions to the MMPA language, "individually identifiable pinnipeds" and "significant negative impact."

"They're still not at a place where they are making decisions," said Donna Silverberg, whose firm is facilitating the process.

"They really respect the decision they have to make and take it seriously," Silverberg said of the panel.

The task force mapped out a few non-lethal deterrent options that could eventually be prerequisites to any lethal take recommendation.

Researchers have told the panel that hazing methods employed at the dam and downstream during the past two years have been futile and few, if any, other non-lethal tools are in the toolbox.

During its initial meeting Sept. 4-5 in Portland, the group reached a "near consensus" that sea lion predation does appear to have a "significant negative impact" on the spring chinook salmon run. Two main components of the run, Snake River and Upper Columbia spring chinook, are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Upper Columbia stock is in the more tenuous condition, holding "endangered" status, while the Snake River fish are threatened.

Researchers observed 3,859 fish being taken at the dam this past spring with the vast majority being upriver spring chinook. That observed sea lion predation in the waters immediately below the dam alone accounted for an estimated 4.1 percent of the total spring chinook return. No estimates are available regarding the sea lions' predation in the 145 river miles between the dam and the river mouth.

Researchers say that California sea lions were only occasional visitors to the dam from the late 1930s, when Bonneville was built, through most of the 1990s. Their growing presence in the late 1990s and early this decade drew the attention of the NOAA Fisheries Service, which triggered research by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into the pinnipeds' eating habits.

The number of individual sea lions identified at the dam peaked in 2003 and 2004 at slightly more than 100. During the past three years from 70-80 California sea lions have turned up at the dam, for visits short and long. Many of the pinnipeds return year after year.

Researchers have charted, from 2002-2007, 151 "highly identifiable" California sea lions. The most persistent of them has been seen at the dam on 189 different days over the six years and witnesses have seen him take 190 salmon. Researchers stress witnessed predation represents only a part of any sea lions total take.

The states' application to Secretary of Commerce proposes legal removal of California sea lions above Columbia River Navigation Marker 85 (approximate river mile 139.5), annually from Jan. 1 to June 30. Any lethal removal activity will be preceded by a period of non-lethal deterrent activity (e.g., acoustic and tactile harassment), followed by an evaluation period, according to the states.

"In addition to animals located above Marker 85, all individually marked California sea lions that have been documented feeding on salmonids at Bonneville Dam would be candidates for removal without restriction to time or location in the river, according to the application. Lethal removals in the first year of the proposed authorization is expected to be less than 1 percent of the Potential Biological Removal (PBR) level for California sea lions (current PBR level is 8,333 animals out of an estimated population of 237,000)." That PBR is an estimate of the annual mortality that could occur without affecting the overall health of the California sea lion population.

The task force this week formulated three potential lethal removal scenarios, one of which shared the states' geographic definition of individually identifiable and two that did not.

The product of one task force break-out group suggested a hard charge at the beginning, the removal of as many California sea lions as possible during a first year (up to 2 percent PBR).

Such a larger scale removal would have "no impact on the reproductive efficiency of the (sea lion) population" and would likely discourage the recruitment of Bonneville visitors in future years, said task force member Bob Delong of NOAA Fisheries Service National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

The other two options focused on Table 3.3, the list of 151 highly identifiable pinnipeds. One proposed the lethal take of any of the marine mammals on the list in the area immediately below the dam in a first phase, and down to Navigation Marker 85 during a second phase. So-called "notorious" pinnipeds -- those who have spent at least seven days at the dam or that have been seen taking 12 or more salmon -- could be killed anywhere, in the river or along the coast.

The options and overall recommendations will be winnowed over the next 2 1/2 weeks and a draft produced for the task force's Oct. 30-31 meeting in Portland. The two days will be spent finalizing the document.

The report must be sent to the Commerce Department by Nov. 5. The MMPA says that the task force must recommend whether or not to approve the application and include a "description of the specific pinniped individual or individuals, the proposed location, time and method of such taking, criteria for evaluating the proposed location, time and method of such taking, criteria for evaluating the success of the action, and the duration of the intentional lethal taking authority…."

Section 120 says that the secretary has 30 days from receipt of the recommendations to either approve or deny the states' application.

"If such application is approved, the Secretary shall immediately take steps to implement the intentional lethal talking, which shall be performed by federal or state agencies, or qualified individuals under contract to such agencies."

The panel's members come from government agencies, conservation organizations, Indian tribes and science and fishing associations.

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, Humane Society of the United States.

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