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Endangered Steller Sea Lions Could Become Next Target on the Columbia River

By October 18, 2012No Comments

Commentary by Sandy McElhaney, Onshore Volunteer, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society


California sea lion painfully branded by government workers
Photo: Erwin Vermeulen/Sea Shepherd

The California sea lions at the center of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Dam Guardian program will have their day in court in Portland, Oregon on Friday, October 19.  On this date, lawyers for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will present oral arguments in a case against the Secretary of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  HSUS seeks to overturn a permit that was issued to allow the lethal removal of California sea lions at the Bonneville Dam.

In May, a federal judge denied a motion from HSUS for a preliminary injunction to halt the killing of these sea lions on the Bonneville Dam in 2012. The animals are charged with consuming salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.  While fishermen are allowed to catch up to 17 percent of the prized fish, HSUS maintains that the California sea lions take only about 1 percent of the salmon on the Columbia River.

According to a May 2012 document from NMFS to the Directors of the Oregon and Washington Departments of Wildlife, 39 California sea lions deemed as “predators” of endangered salmon have been killed since 2008 and 11 have been taken into captivity.  This figure does not include California sea lion C021, who was captured on a floating trap in Astoria and killed on August 30, 2012.

Any sea lion that has been observed eating even a single salmon is subject to being added to a “hit list” that can lead to the animal being killed.  NMFS has authorized the Oregon and Washington state sea lion killers to shoot or euthanize any California sea lions who match the following description:

  • have been observed eating salmonids at Bonneville Dam, in the “observation area” below the dam, in the fish ladders, or above the dam, between January 1 and May 31 of any year;
  • have been observed at Bonneville Dam on a total of any 5 days (consecutive days, days within a single season, or days over multiple years) between January 1 and May 31 of any year; and
  • are sighted at Bonneville Dam after they have been subjected to active non-lethal deterrence.

Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River
Photo: Erwin Vermeulen/Sea Shepherd

Who are the real predators here?  They may be mammals, but they certainly aren’t marine mammals!

On the Columbia River, a partnership between state and federal officials, and the commercial fishing industry spells certain death for sea lions who come between commercial, tribal, and recreational fishermen and “their” fish.  While State wildlife officials may be the ones who sear the flesh of sea lions with burning hot brands, pummel them with rubber bullets, and ultimately administer the fatal injection, these heinous acts have the stamp of approval of the federal government and are championed by many fishermen up and down the river.

Fishing is a huge industry in the Pacific Northwest.  A May 30, 2012, news release from the Oregon Department of Agriculture reports a harvest value exceeding $145 million for commercial seafood and fishing in 2011.  This was the single largest take in 23 years.  Per the report, salmon accounted for 2.4 million of the 285 million pounds of fish and shellfish landed by commercial fisheries in 2011.  This is just commercial fishing.  Recreational and tribal fishermen get their share, too.  A recent Columbia River regional fishing report in The Seattle Times documented 1,800 salmon boats on the lower Columbia over the Labor Day holiday weekend.  In just the first 3 days of September, The Times recorded “1,099 salmonid anglers (including 342 boats) with 279 adult and 24 jack fall Chinook, 12 steelhead, and 6 adult Coho. 278 (99%) of the adult Chinook, 10 (83%) of the steelhead, and 2 (33%) of the adult Coho were kept.” Clearly, killing sea lions, who kill far fewer fish than fisheries, is not about saving fish, but rather it is about eliminating the competition.

By way of comparison, a report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says that salmon predation by California sea lions reached an all time low of 1,067 (.6% of the total run) from January to June 2012.  Consumption of endangered salmon and not-endangered sturgeon by federally protected Steller sea lions appears to be on the rise (.7% of the total run).  As such, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska have submitted a request to NOAA to remove Steller sea lions from the Endangered Species List.  Should that proposal move forward, it is just a matter of time before the Bonneville Dam sea lion killers add this species to their “to do” list.

In March 2012, Sea Shepherd volunteer and crewmember Erwin Vermeulen visited the Bonneville Dam.  On hearing of this latest proposed attack on Steller sea lions, the veteran Cove Guardian commented:

“Even though the estimated amount of salmon killed by sea lions is the lowest since extensive observation started and dwarfs next to the numbers taken by fisherman or are killed by the dam itself, the immoral governments of Washington and Oregon are targeting a second threatened species of sea lion for senseless slaughter.  It is unacceptable that again and again in the USA and other parts of the world, animals are blamed for human-induced destruction and depletion and then subjected to ‘managing’ – the fashionable word for extermination.”

Sea Shepherd fully supports the Humane Society’s efforts in court.  We will continue to monitor this situation as it unfolds.  In the event that the sea lion killers return to the Bonneville Dam in 2013, so will we.

File photo of Sea lions resting inside an open cage on the Columbia River at the Bonneville Dam

Sea lion traps near the Bonneville Dam on the Colombia River
Photo: Sea Shepherd

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