Come early spring 2012, about 50 or more California sea lions will no doubt make their way back up the Columbia toward Bonneville Dam to join their Steller sea lion cousins in an annual salmon, sturgeon and steelhead feast.
But dining on endangered or threatened Columbia River salmonids, that cost three states and the U.S. government one billion dollars a year to protect, is about to land these pinniped visitors into some dark waters.
On Oct. 24, the federal Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force will meet via teleconference to review cumulative data, including Columbia River fish loss and predatory habits of the large animals.
The task force will then make recommendations to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on a pending "lethal-take" permit application jointly requested by the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, allowing up to 85 sea lion exterminations.
A previous NOAA approved lethal-take program for California sea lions operated at Bonneville and the Lower Columbia from 2008 to 2010. That permit was revoked in July 2011, as a result of a Humane Society of the United States lawsuit challenging its validity.
Though this is a relatively new battle, the stakes in the war between Columbia River fish and sea lions are considerably high.
Commercial and sport fishermen, Native American tribes, state fish and wildlife managers, fish biologists, NOAA scientists and animal rights activists are all at the table and casting about for a solution to a growing problem.
Beginning in the 1980s a pair of California sea lions were sighted annually as visitors to the dam. In 2001, that number jumped to six. By 2002 the number rose to 30 and has risen dramatically every year since, now sometimes topping 100 animals during peak salmon runs.
Given the rather captive nature of salmon and steelhead that are forced to gather below the dam while seeking passage and the expert hunting skills of the large mammals, fishery stakeholders are raising the alarm. Sturgeon and lamprey are also showing impacts.
According to the Corps' October 2011 field report, the number of salmon consumed by the animals from 2007 to 2010 averaged between 2 and 4 percent of the total fish population passing through the dam.
According to the Humane Society, annual permitted commercial and recreational fisheries harvest about 17 percent of the runs.
During the spring 2011 run, the estimated sea lion consumption dropped to about 1.8 percent - representing just under 4,000 fish taken. Some stakeholders attribute this drop to the previous year's kill program.
According to Sharon Young, field director for HSUS and the only task force member to vote against lethal-take in last year's task force vote, the HSUS continues to oppose killing the animals.
"Fishing, hydropower operations, hatcheries and habitat loss are the problems we should be talking about; not rolling back and undermining long-standing and important environmental legislation like the Marine Mammal Protection Act," states Young.
"You are killing animals for no reason other than frustration," Young testified during a recent hearing on the conflict.
Frustration may be a given. Reviewing the wide variety of non-lethal methods that have been employed to discourage these natural salmonid predators gives the average person a sense of how diligent the sea lions are in hunting their natural prey.
According to the October 2011 Corps of Engineers Field Report, sea lion intervention efforts on the Columbia "involved a combination of acoustic, visual and tactile non-lethal deterrents, including boat chasing, above-water pyrotechnics (cracker shells, screamer shells or rockets), rubber bullets, rubber buckshot and beanbags fired from shotguns. Boat-based crews also used underwater percussive devices known as 'seal bombs.'"
According to additional report summaries, the Corps and the state departments of fish and wildlife see hazing efforts as only minimally effective in reducing fish predation.
Sea lions, even those not listed under the Endangered Species Act, are under special protection protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which limits human interference of the aquatic mammals' activities.
Those protections, for the identified predatory Columbia River-based California sea lions, would be lifted if the lethal-kill permit is approved, allowing authorities to shoot or chemically euthanize up to 85 animals over several years.
The predatory Steller sea lions at the dam will currently remain fully protected under the Endangered Species Act; however, a request is now under review to de-list the animals from the "threatened" category.
Public comment may be added during the teleconference call with pre-registration. See info box this page for website.