Somewhere in the Pacific, just off the mouth of the Columbia River are 30 sea lions, annual visitors to Bonneville Dam and the fish ladders, whose future has been dictated by a recent federal court ruling.
On March 22, following a March 15 NOAA kill authorization and a follow-up protest, a federal judge turned down the Humane Society request to halt the authorized killings of sea lions at Bonneville Dam.
The upside for the Bonneville sea lion population is that the authorization now only provides for 30 to be killed versus the original maximum target of 92. And, instead of being shot, they must now be euthanized by lethal injection.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced March 15 an authorization for the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington to permanently remove the specific California sea lions eating salmon and steelhead that congregate below Bonneville Dam as they head up the Columbia River to spawn.
The ruling would have allowed the states to remove (euthanize or relocate) up to 92 animals annually.
The NOAA authorization was scheduled to become effective on March 20 and would stay in effect until the end of May 2016.
On March 19, the Humane Society of the United States, Wild Fish Conservancy and two individual plaintiffs filed suit in federal court, seeking to stop the law from taking effect. They also have asked for a restraining order, at least temporarily halting the scheduled kill program's start.
The protest suit argued that the government agency erred in its assessment of the impact caused by the sea lions predation on endangered species.
NOAA has argued that the amount of salmon and steelhead taken by the animals amounted to significant obstacle to the restoration of imperiled species.
The Humane Society, who has succeeded twice before in stopping NOAA kill orders with lawsuits, used data on fisherman take and impacts from introduced predatory sports fishery species (walleye and bass) to provide counter-balance to NOAA's case.
According to the Human Society suit, Columbia River fishermen are allowed to take up to 17 percent of salmon passing over the dam.
NOAA's data indicates that sea lion predation peaked in 2010, when about 6,000 adult salmon were eaten - equating to about 4.2 percent of the fish passing over the dam.
Last year, about 3,600, or just over 1½ percent of the returning adult population, were eaten.
Walleye and bass both feed on other fish eggs and fry but were introduced for sport fishing without consideration about the impact to endangered salmon, argues the Human Society.
NOAA first authorized the states to euthanize California sea lions starting in 2008. The program was suspended in 2010 as a result of a court order, based on a Humane Society lawsuit.
Up to that date, the states had trapped and removed 38 California sea lions under various agency authorizations. Ten were relocated to captive display facilities and 28 were euthanized.
NOAA estimated that between 25-30 animals will be taken each year, based on the conditions of the authorization, far fewer than the total authorized take of 92 animals per year.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, states can request permission to kill individually identifiable California sea lions or seals that are having a "significant negative impact" on at-risk salmon and steelhead, and NOAA's Fisheries Service can grant that permission if certain legal standards are met.
For the past several years, NOAA's Fisheries Service and other state, tribal and federal agencies have employed a wide range of deterrence methods, including using firecrackers and rubber buckshot, to discourage the sea lions from foraging at the dam. These efforts have been largely unsuccessful.
State and federal biologists estimate that California sea lions have eaten between 1½-4 percent of returning adult salmon at Bonneville Dam each year during the past eight years.
This estimate is based on expert observations by federally trained biologists.
Most of the fish eaten were spring chinook or steelhead, and almost a third of the salmon and steelhead eaten by the sea lions are from stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Under the authorization provided on March 15, the states may euthanize individually identified California sea lions if no permanent holding facility, typically aquariums, for them can be found.
The agency's authorization responds to a request last summer from the three states to "lethally remove" predatory sea lions under a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The March 22 ruling will allow the states to target only individual sea lions that continue to eat salmon after deterrence methods have proven unsuccessful.
According to NOAA, the current estimated West Coast population of California sea lions is almost 300,000, and biologists estimate that more than 9,000 animals could be removed from that population through human-caused actions such as ship strikes or entanglement in fishing nets, without harming the species.
In a typical year, about 430 California sea lions die from human-caused actions.
See supporting materials on the Fisheries Northwest Regional website at: www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Seals-and-Sea-Lions/Sec-120-Authority.cfm