NOAA's Fisheries Service said that Washington, Oregon and Idaho agencies can kill up to 92 animals annually for the next four years. But the agency expects only 25 to 30 sea lions will actually be killed.
"We don't take enjoyment in removing these animals," said Steve Williams, deputy administrator of Oregon Fish and Wildlife's fish division.
Since 2008, Oregon and Washington have killed dozens of sea lions that cross as many as 140 miles to feed on salmon migrating upriver to spawn in the spring as they hit the bottleneck of fish ladders over Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River east of Portland.
But the practice has been opposed by animal rights groups. In 2010, the Humane Society won a court order stopping the killing in 2010, but this decision allows it to resume.
"This hardly seems like a situation that requires fatal management," said Sharon B. Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the U.S.
According to NOAA, the number of salmon eaten by the sea lions peaked in 2010 at 6,000. Last year that number dropped to 3,600, or 1.5 percent, of the total number of returning fish. Biologists say that the fish sea lions eat the most were spring Chinook or steelhead, and almost a third of those fish are from stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Williams said those estimates are a bare minimum. The issue, he said, goes farther down to the mouth of the Columbia river. He said biologists can only observe the sea lions from specific points.
The sea lions are killed with an injection, although the states are allowed to use guns, Williams said.
Since 2008, 28 sea lions have been euthanized and 10 have been shipped to display facilities.
The size of the upriver runs of Chinook salmon and steelhead has also risen in recent years. The Chinook run in 2010 was 315,000, compared with 178,000 in 2008 when efforts began to curtail the sea lion's poaching habits. In that same time period, estimate of steelhead runs increased from about 15,000 to 20,000.
"From the perspective of the states, we believe it's an important piece of the puzzle for recovery of the salmon," Williams said. "It's doubtful we'd remove 92 a year; we don't have that much success trapping animals."
The state agencies will be allowed to set traps starting next Tuesday. Williams said those traps will be ready to catch any sea lion. The states can only kill the sea lions if the animal can be individually identified and no permanent holding facility, typically aquariums, can be found.
Young, though, said that if the recovery of the salmon is the goal, there are other measures that the states can take that have a more meaningful effect. She says that non-native species of fish that are stocked in the river for recreational fishing eat young salmon. Furthermore, she said, if recovery is the goal, fishing limits shouldn't be raised if the salmon runs increase.
"Killing sea lions is not going to do anything meaningful to affect the recovery of the stock," she said.
There are about 300,000 California sea lions on the West coast, according to NOAA.
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