OLYMPIA—The Washington and Oregon departments of Fish and Wildlife plan to begin relocating a number of California sea lions tomorrow morning from the Columbia River to several zoological facilities across the country.
Any relocated animals will be those identified as preying on federally protected endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead in waters immediately below Bonneville Dam. The sea lions are adult males that migrate seasonally from the coast of California to feed on runs of salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia River. They target fish that congregate below the dam before passing up the dam’s fish ladders.
In March, the National Marine Fisheries Service granted Washington, Oregon and Idaho the authority to remove up to 85 identified California sea lions annually in an effort to reduce the animals’ impact on protected fish.
The states' first priority is to relocate as many of the identified California sea lions as possible to federally approved zoos and aquariums. So far, placements have been found for up to 20 sea lions.
The states’ plan to relocate animals was not affected by today’s ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that temporarily prohibits using lethal means to deter predation on protected salmon and steelhead by California sea lions. The court is expected to hear arguments on that issue in early May.
The legal challenge was filed by the Humane Society of the United States, the Wild Fish Conservancy and two private citizens.
A team of marine mammal biologists plan to capture marked sea lions in live traps on floating barges near the dam, and transfer them in cages to specially equipped horse trailers for their journey to a temporary quarantine facility, before they are flown to designated zoological facilities.
The trapping operation is expected to continue on various days for several weeks.
The affected sea lions are part of a robust West Coast population that since 2001 has been seasonally feeding on federally protected salmon and steelhead below the dam.
Despite three years of efforts to deter them, sea lions consumed more than 4 percent of the returning spring chinook salmon run last year, in just the area visible to observers on the dam. As of this week, approximately 50 sea lions were observed feeding on salmon and steelhead immediately below the dam. A single California sea lion consumes an average of seven salmon per day.
“Sea lion predation at the base of Bonneville Dam is a new and significant threat to recovery of Columbia River ESA-listed salmon and detracts from efforts to reduce impacts on protected fish from other sectors—including fisheries, habitat modifications, hatchery and dam operations,” said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s southwest regional office. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of salmon-recovery investments could be compromised if sea lion impacts are not managed as well.”