WASHINGTON (CN) – The Humane Society challenged a National Marine Fisheries Service decision to authorize state agents to shoot as many as 92 “docile and federally protected” California sea lions every year for five years, because the sea lions eat Chinook and steelhead salmon.
The Humane Society of the United States, the Wild Fish Conservancy and two people sued Secretary of Commerce John Bryson and two top National Marine Fisheries Service officials in Federal Court, claiming their recent decision to authorize shooting of sea lions in the Columbia River is arbitrary and capricious and violates the Administrative Procedures Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
“Sea lions eat fish,” the plaintiffs concede in their 44-page complaint. “Each year, California sea lions eat between 0.4 and 4.2 percent of the 80,000 to 300,000 salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Columbia River. In comparison, fishermen are authorized to take approximately up to 17 percent of adults, hydroelectric dams are allowed to take up to 17 percent of adults, and non-native fish such as bass and walleye (of which hundreds of thousands are intentionally released by the government each year), take more than 2 million juveniles each year. Despite these impacts, recent Chinook salmon returns have been among the highest seen in a decade, and the states of Washington and Oregon have increased the amount of take permitted by fishermen over the last few years, allowing fishermen to take up to 12 percent of the total run in 2011, over 10 times the 1.1 percent total consumption by California sea lions that same year.”
Despite the sea lions’ consumption of “minuscule” amounts of the salmon, the NMFS decided in 2008 that state agents should shoot up to 85 sea lions a year. The plaintiffs sued, claiming that the Marine Mammal Protection Act allowed killing or harassing of marine mammals only if they had “‘a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery’ of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead populations.”
Plaintiffs say that in that case, the 9th Circuit vacated the NMFS ruling and remanded it, but that “undeterred by this ruling,” NMFS reissued its ruling, in violation of public notice requirements, and then in March this year, upped the permitted killings to 92 sea lions a year for five years: 460 animals.
“NMFS’s March 2012 decision to authorize the eradication of several hundred native sea lions – while a significant loss of native, federally protected wildlife – is highly unlikely to have any effect on the decline or recovery of listed salmonids, and thus is not only arbitrary and capricious, but continues to stand in stark contract to many past NMFS decisions finding that salmon take far in excess of 4 percent by fishermen, tribes, and other resources users does not have a ‘significant’ impact on the same species of salmon,” the complaint states.
The Humane Society adds: “Although salmonid populations in the Columbia River have long been in decline and continue to face a multitude of threats, returns of these salmonid runs have increased nearly every year since the state’s December 2006 applications to kill sea lions at the Bonneville Dam, increasing by more than 250 percent from 2007 to 2011.”
The society claims the salmonid runs at Bonneville Dam in 2010 and 2011 were the largest since sea lion presence at the dam was first recorded in 2002.
But while salmon populations have increased, the Humane Society says the number of California sea lions, which can grow up to 1,000 pounds and 8 feet long, has declined, to just 54 lions around Bonneville Dam in 2009 and 2011.
The Humane Society and Wild Fish Conservancy say the NMFS failed to look at other ways to help salmon populations, and chose just to kill sea lions.
They want an injunction enjoining state agents from killing the animals.
The groups are represented by Ralph Henry.
Named as defendants along with the secretary of commerce are the assistant administrator of NOAA Fisheries in the National Marine Fisheries Service, Samuel Rauch, and the NMFS Director of the Office of Protected Resources James Lecky.