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Gov't OKs Killing Some Sea Lions

by Joseph Frazier, Associated Press
Forbes, March 21, 2008

PORTLAND, ORE. - State and federal officials say they have done all they can to stop protected California sea lions from munching on threatened salmon at the base of Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, using pyrotechnics, beanbag rounds fired from shotguns and traps.

But the sea lions, who arrive each spring at the base of the dam for the spring chinook working their way upriver to spawn, have pretty much given them the flipper.

So on Tuesday the government authorized Oregon and Washington to kill up to 85 of the worst offenders, listing about 60, identifiable by branding, scars or other markings, for "immediate removal."

Those that can be caught in traps must be held for 48 hours to see if an aquarium, zoo or similar facility will take them. Otherwise, they would be euthanized. Those that avoid trapping can be shot and killed at the dam.

The lethal action was authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service in a directive released Tuesday. The Joseph Frazier, Associated Press obtained a copy Monday night.

Fidelia Andy, chairwoman of the Columbia Intertribal fish Commission, said the order "was the right decision at the right time" and asked for "the public's patience and support while management activities proceed."

But John Balzar, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, said the idea that sea lions must be killed to save salmon was "entirely bogus."

He said fishermen catch three times as many salmon as the sea lions eat, and Oregon and Washington have proposed higher fishing quotas. He said federal estimates are that hydroelectric dams in the Columbia system kill nearly 60 percent of juvenile salmon headed downriver..

The plan to shoot sea lions, he said, coincides with estimates that this year's spring chinook run will be one of the biggest in decades.

Sea lions are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammals Protection Act. An amendment permits the killing of sea lions if Columbia River states get federal permission. Oregon and Washington asked for the permission in 2006, and Idaho offered its support.

Such permission has been granted only once before - in the 1990s for sea lions in the Ballard Locks in Puget Sound in Washington, where five animals were identified as offenders who drastically diminished a steelhead run that has yet to recover.

Three were taken in by an aquatic park before they were killed. The fate of the two others has not been made public.

The list of sea lions specifically authorized for immediate removal includes one branded C404, who became something of a celebrity because of his ability to work his way into the fish ladders of the dam, and even into the window where upriver-bound salmon are counted to determine the size of later runs. Many sea lions have been coming to the dams for years.

The letter announcing the decision was sent to Roy Elicker, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The ruling followed three meetings of a task force comprised of commercial and sport fishermen, treaty tribes and animal rights interests.

By some estimates, the sea lions at the base of the dam take up to 4 percent of the spring chinook run headed upriver to spawn. Others use higher numbers.

Opponents of the kill authorization have said sea lions are a highly visible and politically convenient target when the real problem lies elsewhere, such as hydroelectric dams. The Humane Society and other groups also cite other hurdles facing fish, such as the deterioration of spawning grounds, bird predation of salmon smolts headed to the ocean, and agricultural runoff and other pollution.

Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, said Tuesday the group is studying the documents to decide whether to challenge the order in court.

The order said the states must notify the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the projects manager at Bonneville Dam, the first dam the fish encounter on the trip upriver, as to when they will begin "lethal removal operations."

The authorization is valid until June 30, 2012, and can be extended for five years. It can be revoked by the National Marine Fisheries Service on 72 hours notice.

It says the states must appoint a committee of biologists and veterinarians to determine how to capture, hold and, if necessary, euthanize sea lions.

The order says the sea lions observed eating salmon or steelhead below the dam between Jan. 1 and May 31 of any year, and any seen below the dam on the observation area that have not been run off by nonlethal attempts, can be shot and killed by qualified marksmen armed with high-power guns.

Sea lion populations have soared since they and other marine mammals were covered under the 1972 act. They numbered about 1,000 in the 1930s, when they were hunted and used, among other purposes, for dog food. They are thought to number about 240,000 today.

But they remain protected except under the amendment that allows removal at the request of states.

Steller sea lions, which are larger and tend to feed on sturgeon instead of salmon, are endangered and are not subject to lethal removal under the decision.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is to reconvene the task force after three years to evaluate the effectiveness of the lethal takings.

Joseph Frazier, Associated Press
Gov't OKs Killing Some Sea Lions
Forbes, March 18, 2008

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