Any trapping and removal
of California sea lions feeding on salmon below the Columbia
River's Bonneville Dam will be postponed while a tightly
scheduled legal fight is waged in Portland's U.S. District
The first volley was fired March 24 when the Humane
Society of the United States filed a complaint that alleges a
federal decision allowing lethal removal of the pinnipeds
violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act. On March 28 the
HSUS asked the court of enjoin the decision – effectively
stopping immediate implementation of the sea lion removal plan
– while the lawsuit is debated.
Last week the parties to the lawsuit struck an agreement
that would put off the killing of California sea lions until
at least April 18, but in the meantime allow the trapping of
specific animals for transfer to zoos and aquariums.
With suitable, and willing, captive display facilities
identified, Oregon and Washington state officials last week
considered launching a trapping effort as early as this week.
But, they've decided wait until after an April 16 court
"We're not going to do anything on the river prior to
that," according to Rick Hargrave, a spokesman for the Oregon
Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said state officials
decided it made no sense to trap and haul California sea lions
to holding facilities at Pt. Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in
Tacoma with court decisions looming as early as next week. The
agencies could soon begin to put equipment in place at the dam
to prepare for trapping.
Researchers this year have seen at least 45 different
California sea lions at the dam, as well as 12 Steller sea
lions and two harbor seals. At least 35 of the California sea
lions have been visited the dam in previous years, according
to a weekly report issued Tuesday. The male California sea
lions surge north in winter, foraging to gird themselves for
their summer breeding season off the coast of Southern
Of the 60 animals listed for potential lethal take under
the NOAA authorization, 28 had been seen at Bonneville Dam so
far through April 6. Of those, about 19 of those have been
seen on an ODFW trap positioned below the dam several weeks
ago, according to the research report.
The agreement filed with the federal court was adopted by
Judge Michael W. Mosman Monday. It called for the federal
government to respond to the request for a preliminary
injunction by Wednesday (April 9) and allows the plaintiffs to
reply by Monday. The agreement asks that the judge render a
decision by April 18. It says that if no decision is possible
in that timeframe, the HSUS could seek a temporary restraining
to prevent any sea lion removals.
The HSUS, along with the Wild Fish Conservancy and two
individuals, filed the lawsuit against the NOAA Fisheries
Service, which on March 18 announced it was granting the
authorization under the MMPA for the states of Idaho, Oregon
and Washington to permanently remove up to 85 California sea
lions each year. Oregon and Washington have joined the lawsuit
as defendant intervenors. The case was initially assigned to
Magistrate Judge Dennis J. Hubel, but reassigned this week to
In seeking authorization for lethal removal the states said
the California sea lion predation each spring was having a
significant negative effect on salmon, and on costly efforts
to revive beleaguered fish stocks. Historically few sea lions
have been observed below the dam but in recent years more of
the marine mammals have followed spawning spring chinook
Last year an estimated 80 California sea lions made the
145-mile quest to the dam. Observers documented a sea lion
"take" of 4.2 percent of the salmonid run in the waters
immediately below the dam. Those fish include five salmon and
steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species
NOAA Fisheries' approval of the states' request judged that
"individually identifiable pinnipeds" (seals and sea lions)
"are having a significant negative impact on the decline or
recovery of salmonids listed under the Endangered Species
Act…," the MMPA standard that must be met to allow lethal
The HSUS complaint says the federal agency violated MMPA by
authorizing lethal take of California sea lions "without
adequately determining whether predation is having a
'significant negative impact on the decline or recovery'" of
"In reaching this conclusion, which could justify the
killing of any sea lion that is documented eating fish, the
agency made no attempt to declare what level of 'measurable'
taking of salmon actually constitutes a 'significant negative
impact' -- the applicable statutory standard of the MMPA,"
according to HSUS's March 24 preliminary injunction request.
It says the NOAA decision amounts to making sea lions
scapegoats for the decline of salmon runs.
"In comparison, fishermen are permitted to take up to 17
percent of salmonids, birds take 18 percent of juvenile
salmonids, and hydroelectric dams take a whopping 59 percent
of juveniles," according to HSUS.
The response filed Wednesday by the state of Oregon
acknowledges that "Salmon and steelhead (together 'salmonids')
mortality in the Columbia River basin is the product of a
complex combination of natural and human-influenced causes;
sport and commercial fishermen, tribes, hydro-electric dams,
and birds and other natural predators all play a role."
But the Oregon Department of Justice brief says the sea
lions' discovery that "salmonid cluster near the fish ladders
at the Bonneville Dam, where they are easy prey" has produced
a dramatic increase in mortality.
"Contrary to plaintiffs' assumption that 'only' 4.2 percent
of the affected salmonids are taken by CSLs, which assumes
that the only takings are those occurring during daylight
hours in the immediate vicinity of the Bonneville Dam, this
recent incursion of CSLs into the Columbia is responsible for
taking between an estimated sixteen to twenty percent of the
five salmon populations that return to the Columbia from
February through May of each year.
"Such a depredation is, by any legal or common sense
measure, significant. If left unchecked it would add a new
source of mortality for fish that already are on a downward
spiral toward extinction," the Oregon brief says.
Meanwhile, the California sea lion population is thriving,
according to the Oregon document.
"The number of animals affected by the federal
authorization will have no effect on the CSLs, which already
have a huge surplus of males beyond the number necessary for
reproduction of the species." The Oregon brief asks that the
injunction be denied.
A declaration submitted from Robin Brown says the sea lions
impact significance "is not lessened by the fact that the
Bonneville Dam itself, humans and birds also take fish.".
Brown is chief of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
Marine Mammal Research.
Sea lions "are a new, growing, and unaccounted for addition
to the overall mortality of salmonids in the lower Columbia
River. This loss must be managed and minimized as much as
possible, in concert with all other salmonid recovery efforts
under way," according to Brown's declaration.
The MMPA's Section 120 was created specifically to address
such sea lion-salmon interactions, according to a federal
motion filed Wednesday in opposition to the injunction
"Granting the Plaintiffs' motion would undo the careful
balance that Congress struck when it amended the MMPA. The
predatory sea lions at Bonneville Dam pose a threat to salmon
and steelhead. Congress has given NMFS the authority to
respond to that threat," the federal brief says. The federal
and Oregon filings both say that the "harm" claimed by the
HSUS from the killing of sea lions is not sufficient to
overturn the NOAA decision.
"Plaintiffs contend that such takings will cause them
emotional pain. Whether the taking will or will not cause such
pain should not be a determinative factor," the Oregon filing
says. The law requires harm be proven to win an injunction.
"Allowing such a low threshold for blocking the rigorously
supported efforts of the States to preserve endangered and
threatened salmon goes beyond existing law and would not
fulfill the Congressional intent of the MMPA, which explicitly
contemplated the need to take seals or sea lions in order to
protect ESA-listed salmon."
PINNIPED PREDATION REPORT: HAZING NOT REDUCING SEA
LIONS' SALMON CATCH
April 11, 2008
A total of 35,000
cracker shells, rubber bullets and seal bombs were fired
off last year in what was a doubling of the effort to
discourage sea lion predation on salmon and steelhead
below the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam.
the desired effect.
"Although hazing activity has noticeably altered the
behavior of both California and Steller sea lions, total
salmonid catch has not declined in response to hazing
efforts," according to an April 2 report produced by U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers researchers Sean C. Tackley,
Robert J. Stansell and Karrie M. Gibbons.
The report, "Pinniped Predation on Adult Salmonids and
Other Fish in the Bonneville Dam Tailrace, 2005-2007,"
details results of an ongoing study to evaluate sea lion
eating habits, and impacts on spawning salmon and
The report, dated April 2, can be found online at:
The report does not make a recommendation regarding sea
lion hazing, which began again this winter with renewed
"That's something we struggled with internally,"
Stansell said. Some of those involved say the effort
should continue while others say it is a costly venture
that doesn't seem to be reducing impacts on salmon and
steelhead. A number of the passing fish are protected
under the Endangered Species Act.
"It makes our job more difficult," Stansell said of the
dam- and boat-based harassment of hunting California and
Steller sea lions.
"The spillway became a kind of sea lion sanctuary in
2007, as full-time, intensive hazing efforts at PH1 and
PH2 encouraged California sea lions to use the spillway
tailrace," according to the report. "The spillway was
extremely turbulent after April 10, which prevented boat
access and limited the effectiveness of noise-based
deterrents used by dam-based hazers." The dam's operators
begin spilling water April 10 to facilitate downstream
passage for juvenile salmon and steelhead.
"Observers reported that California sea lions became
more secretive in response to hazing, spending more time
below the surface than usual; making individual
identification more difficult," the report says.
It would seem the hazing would have to continue in some
form if the states Idaho, Oregon and Washington are to
implement their newly won authorization to remove,
lethally or otherwise, California sea lions that are
having a significant negative impact on listed salmonid
stocks. One of the conditions of that approval by the NOAA
Fisheries Service says that animals can only be targeted
if they are seen again below the dam after having been
"subjected to active non-lethal deterrence."
The researchers have only been observing sea lion
predation during the daylight hours, but this year they
have done limited nighttime monitoring. A weekly report
released Tuesday says that nighttime hunting has been both
by California sea lions and Steller sea lions.
"This may explain why we see many animals only hauled
out during the day and not hunting. Whether this is a
result of daytime hazing activities, less dominant animals
being pushed from daytime predation by larger numbers of
dominant animals, or if it extends throughout the night
has yet to be determined," the weekly report says.
Hazing efforts began in 2005 and have been stepped up
in each of the succeeding springs, principally March
Research carried out in 2006 indicated that hazing and
acoustic deterrent efforts "failed to reduce the number of
salmon taken or the total number of pinnipeds present at
the project. Total observed salmonid catch was actually
significantly higher on days with hazing and acoustics,
but fewer pinnipeds were present within 100 feet of
fishway entrances on those days.
There were no significant differences in salmonid catch
or pinniped presence between days with or without
boat-based hazing. Slightly fewer salmon were taken on
days when boat hazing occurred, but more pinnipeds were
present near the entrances," the 2005-2007 report says.
"This may be because the boats had limited access and
could not get too close to the dam, having the occasional
effect of chasing some pinnipeds closer to the dam.
Steller sea lions were responsive to hazing activities,
and sturgeon predation in the study area was effectively
halted when boat-based hazing began.
Stansell says that the Steller sea lions are not
responding to the hazing this year as they have in the
The research has been ongoing since 2001, triggered by
NOAA Fisheries' 2000 biological opinion on federal hydro
system effects on listed salmon and steelhead. That
document cited high rates of marine mammal tooth and claw
abrasions on fish examined at the lower Snake River's
Lower Granite Dam adult trapping facility.
Few sea lions were noted as far upstream, 145 miles, as
Bonneville until the turn of the century. Early in the
decade their presence grew rapidly, numbering more than a
100 in the springs of 2003 and 2004. The spring California
sea lion population has stabilized at about 80 in each of
the past three years.
"Annual expanded estimates of pinniped predation on
adult salmonids in the Bonneville Dam tailrace increased
each year, from 2,920 fish in 2005 to 3,859 fish in 2007
," the report says. "The relative impact, expressed as the
estimated percentage of the salmonid run taken by
pinnipeds, varied with run size and the expanded estimate
of salmonid catch. The estimated percentage of the
salmonid run taken by pinnipeds in the Bonneville Dam
tailrace between 2005 and 2007 averaged 3.5 percent with a
high of 4.2 percent in 2007."
Adult salmon and steelhead were the primary prey item,
comprising at least 75.6 percent of observed catches.
Pacific lamprey and white sturgeon were the second and
third most commonly identified prey species, comprising
9.4 percent and 5.3 percent of total observed catch,
respectively, according to the report. Chinook salmon are
the mostly commonly identified prey of the sea lions.
California sea lions were the primary predator of adult
salmonids in the Bonneville Dam tailrace, accounting for
99.0 percent of the 8,946 observed adult salmonid catches
over the recent three-year period, and 99.8 percent of the
4,957 observed chinook salmon catches.
"About 91.4 percent of observed steelhead catches were
attributed to California sea lions during this period,
with Steller sea lions reportedly catching 8.5 percent of
the total," the report says.
"White sturgeon was the most commonly observed prey
item for Steller sea lions, which made 97.8 percent of the
626 observed sturgeon catches since 2002."
The report notes that "The sea lion season at
Bonneville Dam has grown more protracted in recent years,
as a few California sea lions and most Steller sea lions
have arrived earlier each year. This increased predation
activity prior to the mid-March through mid-June spring
Chinook salmon run has resulted in increased impacts on
steelhead and white sturgeon."