OLYMPIA – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will solicit public comments later this month on a proposal to remove California sea lions preying on threatened salmon and steelhead on the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam.
OLYMPIA – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will accept public comments starting Friday (March 21) on a proposal to remove California sea lions preying on threatened salmon and steelhead on the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam.
The public comment period, scheduled to run through April 4, is part of an environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Comments can be submitted via email (SEPAdesk2@dfw.wa.gov) or mailed to Teresa Eturaspe, SEPA coordinator, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 600 Capitol Way N., Olympia, WA. Information on the Columbia River sea lion removal proposal will be available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/hab/sepa/sepa.htm on Friday, March 21.
The WDFW review is in response to federal action today granting Washington, Oregon and Idaho the authority to remove— through non-lethal or lethal means— up to 85 individually identified California sea lions annually that have been observed preying on salmon and steelhead listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). NOAA estimates that only about 30 animals will be removed each year, given the conditions in its authorization.
While the federal authorization allows states to remove the animals through lethal means, the states’ first efforts will be to relocate the sea lions to zoos and aquariums.
“Our top priority is to place as many animals as we can in appropriate facilities,” said Guy Norman, WDFW regional director for southwest Washington. “Lethal removal is the option of last resort, but the federal government has determined the problem to be significant enough to authorize the states to use it to protect these threatened salmon and steelhead populations.”
NOAA-Fisheries, which must approve such transfers, is in contact with a number of facilities interested in accepting California sea lions moved from the Columbia River.
An Animal Care Committee of veterinarians and marine mammal biologists has been established by the states to oversee sea lion handling, holding and removal. Removal would take place through the end of May, when the spring chinook salmon run comes to an end and the California sea lions return to their breeding grounds off Baja California.
The states jointly requested removal authority in 2006 under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows such action for individually identified sea lions that are significantly impacting federally protected salmon and steelhead. The NOAA-Fisheries authorization followed recommendations of an 18-member task force appointed by federal authorities.
Federal review of the states’ request also included a 30-day public comment period on a draft environmental assessment written in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The federal environmental review considered the environmental consequences of alternative actions designed to reduce sea lion predation below Bonneville Dam on salmon and steelhead listed as threatened and endangered under the ESA.
WDFW will consider comments received during its own environmental review before issuing its SEPA determination, scheduled for release April 7.
Under the federal authorization, California sea lions can only be removed from the river if they have been individually identified through markings; have been documented feeding on salmon or steelhead; and have resisted deterrence efforts.
For the past three years, WDFW, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have used flares, rubber bullets and other non-lethal measures in an effort to deter California sea lions from feeding on ESA-listed fish. Despite those efforts, USACE has documented an increasing rate of predation by sea lions immediately below Bonneville Dam, 145 miles upstream from the river mouth.
Coastwide, the California sea lion population has grown since the 1970s, and is now estimated to be at least 238,000 animals. Wildlife managers estimate that up to 1,000 California sea lions forage each year between the mouth of the Columbia River and Bonneville Dam, 145 miles upriver.
In 2002, the USACE observed 31 individual sea lions consume 1,010 salmon and steelhead below the dam, accounting for 0.4 percent of the fish destined for the upper Columbia River system. Last year, sea lions consumed nearly 4,000 salmon and steelhead, representing 4.2 percent of the spring run. The predation numbers counted only those fish taken near the dam, and do not include predation downstream.
For the past four years, up to 100 individual California sea lions annually have been observed feeding below the dam, most during peak salmon runs in April and May. An adult California sea lion typically eats 5 to 7 salmon a day.
“The situation below Bonneville Dam is out of balance, with an abundant predator species heavily impacting protected fish populations,” said Norman. “We have a responsibility to protect threatened salmon and steelhead from increasing predation.”
Norman emphasized that sea lion predation will require a continuing control effort. “This problem has been growing since 2001, and we don’t expect to remedy it in a single year,” he said.
For more information about Columbia River sea lions, see WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/sealions/.