An 18-member "Pinniped-Fishery
Interaction Task Force" this week voted by an 17-1 margin to
recommend approval of an application from the states of Idaho,
Oregon and Washington for authority to lethally remove
California sea lions that feast each spring on salmon and
steelhead returning to the Columbia River.
recommendation will be forwarded to the NOAA Fisheries
Service, which would ultimately decide whether or not to
approve the application. NOAA's Garth Griffin said the agency
hopes to make that determination in March, "in time for the
next round of conflict."
A final task force report, now being fine-tuned, must be
forwarded to the federal agency by the end of the day Monday.
It will contain two options that outline parameters for lethal
removal of the large pinnipeds. Appended will be a minority
report from the lone dissenter, the Humane Society of the
United States, which opposes granting the states lethal take
authority under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection
The task force recommendations will be posted on NOAA's web
site soon after their receipt, Griffin said. He asked people
to "look at it for what it is," a first step in a federally
The MMPA charges the task force with producing a
recommendation, along with a description of the specific
pinniped individual or individuals, the proposed location,
time, and method of taking, criteria for evaluating the
success of the action and the duration of the intentional
lethal talking authority. It also must suggest non-lethal
alternatives, if available and practicable, including a
recommended course of action.
The law requires that Secretary of Commerce, represented by
NOAA Fisheries, to approve or deny the application within 30
days of receipt of the report. That timeline is not realistic,
however, given the agency's responsibilities under two other
federal laws -- the National Environmental Protection Act and
the Endangered Species Act, Griffin said.
The agency expects to produce a draft environmental
assessment by January. Following a two-week public comment the
agency will complete the NEPA requirements and make a finding
on the states' application. That assessment will weigh the
task force recommendations as well as other alternatives,
including a no action alternative.
"If it's approved it can move on to implementation,"
Griffin said. He noted, that with federal agencies operating
fixed budgets under congressional continuing resolutions, no
implementation funding is in sight if the application is
State biologists at the task force meetings this week in
Portland made an admittedly ballpark estimate of $1 million
annually for removing California sea lions, research and
monitoring and related activities.
The MMPA's Section 120 gives the task force 60 days from
the date it first convenes to produce a recommendation. During
its initial meeting Sept. 4-5 in Portland, the group reached a
near consensus that California sea lion predation does have a
"significant negative impact on the decline or recovery on
salmonids listed under the Endangered Species Act…," a Section
120 standard that must be met before an exemption to the
MMPA's take moratorium is allowed.
During the 60-day period the task force convened for three
Listed Snake River spring/summer chinook and steelhead and
Upper Columbia spring chinook and steelhead are among the
stocks forging their way upriver to spawn during the spring.
In recent years, a growing number of California sea lions have
also found their way upriver and planted themselves at the
base of Bonneville Dam.
Observed sea lion predation in the waters immediately below
the dam alone accounted for an estimated 4.1 percent of the
total salmonid run passing the dam last spring. No estimates
are available regarding the sea lions' predation in the 145
river miles between the dam and the river mouth.
The application from the states' fish and wildlife agencies
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 application also asks authority to remove all
individually marked California sea lions that have been
documented feeding on salmonids at Bonneville Dam "without
restriction to time or location in the river," according to
the application. It asks for authority to remove as much as 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
"They both meet the intent of the application," Guy Norman
said of the options approved by the task force. Norman
represented the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on
the panel. The task force members come from state and federal
agencies, conservation organizations, Indian tribes, science
and fishing associations and included representatives of the
Marine Mammal Commission and Oregon Zoo.
One task force option (preferred by 10 members and
acceptable to 17 of 18) says to remove the minimum number of
California sea lions necessary affect and reduce the number of
pinnipeds recruited to the area below Bonneville, where the
salmonids mill before mounting the dams fish ladders.
That "blue/purple" option set as an interim goal of
reducing sea lion predation in the observation area blow the
dam to a rolling three-year average of 1 percent of the
salmonid run. "Identifiable" (marked, tagged, branded or
identifiable natural markings) California sea lions observed
taking salmonids below Bonneville could be killed anywhere
down to Navigation Marker 85, about five miles below the dam,
under the option.
The blue/purple option would allow the killing on the spot
of sea lions seen eating salmon in the "protected area" below
the dam, and would allow "notorious" California sea lions to
be taken anywhere except at their Southern California rookery.
Notorious animals are defined as those individuals that are
identifiable and have been observed taking at least 30 salmon
or observed in at least three different years in the area
upriver of NM 85.
The "green" option (preferred by 7 of 18 members and
acceptable to 15 of 18) sets as a goal reducing California sea
lion presence above NM 85 and reducing predation on salmonids
to 0.5 percent. Like the other option, it says to remove the
minimum number of sea lions necessary to achieve its goal.
The green option calls for "zero tolerance" in a sea lion
exclusion zone from Bonneville Dam down to a line extending
from the Hamilton boat ramp (WA shore) straight across the
river to a point 100 yards down from Tanner Creek. It would
allow lethal removal of up to 2 percent of PBR and the
targeting of any California sea lions in the area down to NM
85 and of "highly identifiable" animals anywhere in the river.
"We're pleased with the outcome and look forward to prompt
approval by the Secretary of Commerce and NOAA with plans to
implement in 2008," Olney Patt, Jr., executive director of the
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said after being
briefed on the proceedings and outcome. All four CRITFC member
tribes, and the organization itself, were represented on the
"We commend the states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon for
making this application," said Patt, whose organization had
pressed the states for three years to apply for lethal take
authority. "The task force members brought strong issues and
insights to the table. Each matter received thorough and
Sharon Young of the Humane Society said neither option was
acceptable and doubts the applicability of Section 120 to the
Columbia River situation. The section was designed to provide
a swift, sure solution to negative fish-pinniped interactions.
"I don't see that this is anything but an eternal need,"
Young said, with more lions likely to flood in to replace
their fallen mates.
"I don't want sea lions killed to no purpose," she said.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council supports the
recommendations to be forward to NOAA.
"The Northwest has devoted considerable effort to protect,
enhance and recover salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River
Basin," Council Chair Tom Karier said. "Safe passage for these
fish at Bonneville Dam is essential to ensure the health of
these species. The Council believes that a reliable and timely
mechanism must be available to the fish and wildlife managers
to enable them to remove predatory California sea lions when
they represent a significant danger to the health and
improvement of a listed species."
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.
The task force membership includes:
-- Daryl Boness, Marine Mammal Commission;
-- Bruce Buckmaster, Salmon for All;
-- Jody Calica, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs
-- Robert Delong, NOAA Fisheries Service National Marine
-- 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
-- Barry McPherson, Oregon Chapter, American Fisheries
-- Guy Norman, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife;
-- Joe Oatman, Nez Perce Tribes;
-- Dennis Richey, Oregon Anglers;
-- Carl Scheeler, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla
-- 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.