PORTLAND, Ore. - A federal agency recommended killing about 30 sea lions a year at a Columbia River dam where the marine animals feast on salmon migrating upriver to spawn. By many estimates, the sea lions devour about 4 percent of spring runs. Fishermen and Columbia River tribes have urged action for years against the sea lions at Bonneville Dam.
The recommendation in the report released Thursday by NOAA Fisheries Service was short of what Oregon, Washington and Idaho had requested in 2006.
At least three of the upper Columbia River spring salmon runs that pass through the dam are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, most significantly the spring chinook salmon run.
Sea lions are attracted to the dam east of Portland because of the large number of fish that gather there to pass through the "fish ladders" — or openings in the structure that allow fish to continue swimming upstream to spawning grounds.
Sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but are not considered threatened. An amendment to the 1972 law allows states to get permission to kill identifiable sea lions or seals that have "a significant negative impact" on at-risk salmon and steelhead. NOAA Fisheries can grant the states' requests under some conditions.
NOAA plans to take public testimony on four alternatives through Feb. 19 and make a decision in March. If the recommendation is implemented, a committee approved by NOAA would set standards for capturing or killing the sea lions.
The other alternatives were to take no action; to continue using such nonlethal weapons as rubber buckshot and large firecrackers, which has not been effective; or to kill all sea lions within about five miles of the dam, which could affect about 150 animals.
The last alternative is closer to what the states wanted. Opponents argue sea lions aren't the real problem, instead blaming predatory birds, deteriorating habitat and hydroelectric dams themselves.
Sharon Young, marine issues field director of the Humane Society of the United States, said it is not clear how the NOAA numbers are tied to impact on fish.
"There are a lot of very complex problems affecting the fish, and this will do little to help the fish," Young said. "It is not clear that this will do anything other than kill sea lions."
But leaders of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said the recommendation is critically needed to protect salmon. The group's statement said some sea lions have "become adept at exploiting endangered salmon seeking to enter the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam."
A similar application was made in the 1990s when steelhead were being devoured by sea lions at Ballard Locks in Seattle.
Before an order to kill them went into effect, a public outcry resulted in a reprieve, and Sea World in Florida took three identified as troublemakers.
The sea lions had killed up to 65 percent of the winter steelhead at the locks linking Puget Sound with Union and Washington lakes, and the run has not fully recovered