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Sea lion traps set to resume on Columbia River

February 25, 2009 |  7:32 pm

Sea_lion_at_bonneville_dam

The one-sided love affair between the California sea lion and the succulent salmon of the Columbia River has been going on since time immemorial, with salmon typically coming out the losers in the affair.

But with many West Coast salmon runs now endangered or threatened, fisheries officials have been struggling to find ways to keep salmon off the menu, at least near Bonneville Dam on the border between Washington and Oregon, where sea lions have learned to gather for easy feasts. In 2007, sea lions ate about 3,800 of the 88,474 salmon that passed through the dam.

“Lethal removal” is back on the table. Washington and Oregon wildlife officials plan to resume setting up traps for sea lions near the dam as early as next week, with an eye toward relocating or euthanizing up to 71 known repeat offenders after March 1 — if a federal appeals court does not intervene. The trapping had been temporarily suspended since six sea lions were accidentally killed last spring because of malfunctions in the floating cages.

“We’re not looking to remove all California sea lions, or cull them. We’re looking to remove very specific, individual animals that are the source of the problem below Bonneville Dam,” said Garth Griffin, who is supervising the program for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland, Ore.

The Humane Society of the United States has filed suit to block the culling. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had granted a stay, allowing trappings but not executions, until March 1. Now, everyone is waiting to see whether the court will step in and grant a new reprieve. If not, and if wildlife officials can’t find zoos or marine sanctuaries to take them, the worst of the predators will be euthanized, possibly as early as next month.

In their appeal, animal advocates say sea lions kill far fewer fish than the human fishermen who this year will be allowed to reel in 12% of the spring Chinook run on the Columbia. “Sea lions and salmon co-evolved,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society.  “But evolution never counted on us putting dams in the middle of rivers, and drawing out water for agriculture, and putting trawlers in the ocean and lining the banks with everybody who can afford a fishing rod.”

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service

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