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Bonneville Dam Sea Lions Under Siege

A timeline of events surrounding our work to protect the sea lions at Washington/Oregon’s Bonneville Dam

March 19, 2012: The HSUS and the Wild Fish Conservancy, along with two citizens, filed suit to stop the killing of as many as 460 sea lions at Bonneville Dam over the next five years. The sea lions are misguidedly blamed for decreasing numbers of endangered salmon in the Columbia River.

“Federal law allows the killing of sea lions only in very limited circumstances, when the agency proves they are having a significant negative impact on salmon,” said Jonathan R. Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation for The HSUS.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to kill hundreds of native marine mammals to reduce salmon losses by a couple of percentage points at best, while simultaneously authorizing much larger man-made sources of endangered salmon mortality, is both outrageous and patently illegal.” Read more »

Timeline of Events

March 15, 2012: The National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it will once again authorize the killing of sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

October 24, 2011: The Bonneville Dam Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force is reconvened to discuss the states’ application to kill sea lions. Sharon Young, marine issues field director for The HSUS, opposes the application, but the majority of task force members vote to support it.   

October 19, 2011: In an op-ed appearing at oregonlive.com, HSUS chief operating officer Michael Markarian explains why sea lions aren't the enemy.

October 12, 2011: The HSUS submits comments to the NMFS expressing our opposition to the states' application to kill sea lions.

August 18, 2011: The states of Washington and Oregon submit a new application to the NMFS to kill up to 85 sea lions a year near Bonneville Dam. 

July 26, 2011: In response to The HSUS lawsuit filed in May 2011, the federal government revokes an authorization previously granted to Washington and Oregon to kill 255 sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

June 14, 2011: In response to a bill filed in Congress to exempt killing sea lions in the Columbia River from the MMPA requirements and from the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement for environmental impact review, Sharon Young testifies against a bill that would roll back longstanding federal protections for native sea lions. “Expanding state authority to shoot sea lions will not do anything to speed recovery of salmon stocks,” Young said.

May 25, 2011: The states of Oregon and Washington and The NMFS agree to suspend plans to kill as many as 85 sea lions at the Bonneville Dam. 

May 20, 2011: Along with Wild Fish Conservancy and two individual citizens, The HSUS files a lawsuit to stop the NMFS from authorizing plans to kill more than 250 sea lions at Bonneville Dam over the next three years.

May 12, 2011: The NMFS announces that it has received and approved a new application by the states to kill sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

November 23, 2010: Ruling on an appeal filed by The HSUS and the Wild Fish Conservancy, a federal appeals court blocks an NMFS program to kill sea lions at the dam. Read the court’s decision.  

January-March 2010: Fourteen sea lions are trapped and given lethal injections.

January-March 2009: After a court refuses to continue the ban on killing sea lions in 2009, four sea lions are trapped and sent to permanent captivity in a zoo and an additional 10 are given lethal injections.

May 6, 2008: After six sea lions die in their closed traps at the dam, and a seventh dies in the care of the NMFS after trapping, the agency agrees to halt the planned trapping for the remainder of the year.

April 30, 2008: A sea lion dies in captivity after being trapped at the dam. "Given that sea lions eat so few of the salmon compared to overfishing and other impacts, there should be no rush to remove these animals from the wild, especially in light of the apparent problems with capture and relocation," said The HSUS’s Michael Markarian.

April 23, 2008: Finding that the NMFS’s plan to kill sea lions likely violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and that "the lethal taking of California sea lions is, by definition, irreparable" harm, a federal appeals court blocks the killing of 85 sea lions for that year but allows trapping and branding of animals to continue.

March-April 2008: Six sea lions are trapped and transferred to Sea World for permanent captivity.

March 24, 2008: The HSUS, Wild Fish Conservancy, and private citizens file suit to stop the NMFS from authorizing the killing of as many as 425 sea lions at Bonneville Dam. NMFS concluded that the sea lions must be killed to prevent them from eating too much fish, despite the fact that both Washington and Oregon had recently proposed an increase in fishing quotas.

March 18, 2008: The NMFS authorizes the states to begin killing up to 85 sea lions each year near Bonneville Dam.

February 7, 2008: An editorial appears in The Seattle Times explaining how sea lions are being unfairly scapegoated for the Columbia River’s declining salmon populations.

January 18, 2008: The NMFS announces its intent to approve the killing of sea lions at Bonneville Dam. The HSUS submits comments opposing the NMFS proposal to authorize the killing.

November 2007: Documenting the failure of the application to meet criteria of the MMPA and saying that authorizing killing “will merely waste the lives of the sea lions to no purpose;” the HSUS is the lone dissenter in a task force recommendation to approve the application and allow up to 425 sea lions to be killed over a five-year period. Read our minority report.

September 4, 2007: Sharon Young, marine issues field director for The HSUS, is appointed to a federal task force convened to evaluate the states' application to kill sea lions.

March 2007: A bill is again introduced in Congress to “streamline” killing sea lions. The HSUS’s Sharon Young provides testimony during an August hearing in the subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans of the House Natural Resources Committee. This bill also fails to pass in this session of Congress.

January  30, 2007: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requests public comment on an application it received from the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to kill sea lions eating salmon near Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River.

October 2006: A bill is introduced in Congress (H.R. 6241 - Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act) to “streamline” killing sea lions in the Columbia River by exempting it from requirements of the MMPA. The bill fails to pass Congress in this session.

1994: Congress amends the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to allow states to apply to kill seals or sea lions if individually identifiable animals are found to be having a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of ESA-listed stocks of salmon.

More Background

From the time that Lewis and Clark documented seals, sea lions, and otters in the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington until the 1972 passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act made it illegal to kill them, humans have taken aim at sea lions.

Heavy hunting dramatically reduced their populations and they are only recently re-occupying areas where they were absent for decades. 

In the spring of 2002, sea lions were documented eating salmon in the Columbia River at the base of the giant Bonneville Dam. About 30 percent of the salmon that run up the Columbia to spawn in the spring are from stocks that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

The salmon runs began to decline following construction of the Bonneville Dam. Other problems facing the fish include degraded spawning habitat, poorly operated hatchery programs that actually compete with the wild salmon, and fishing by commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries that can take up to 17 percent of the ESA-listed fish.

Sea lions have been documented eating between one and five percent of the spring run of fish. The states have also stocked the river with non-native bass and walleye to please sport fishermen, even though the government estimates these “invaders” consume up to 2 million juvenile salmon each year. 

Sea lions have been turned into that mythical beast, the scapegoat. Rather than helping the fish, killing sea lions simply distracts attention from the government’s failure to address the much larger and real problems facing salmon recovery. The battle to save the sea lions from unnecessary death—and to help the fish by spotlighting the challenges to their recovery that are being ignored—has been a long one, but it is one to which we are deeply committed.

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