Across the great Pacific at the Bonneville Dam near Portland, Oregon, Zalophus californianus the California sea lion is the scapegoat of federal and state officials, along with a number of other special interest groups, all of whom claim a stake in saving endangered salmon or fishing rights on the Columbia River. As a result, a recent ruling by a federal judge paved the way for up to 30 California sea lions to be lethally injected for eating endangered salmon at the dam. Mathematical evidence suggests that sea lions aren’t to blame. A Questions & Answers document posted online by the Northwest Regional Office of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on March 15, 2012, states, “The proportion of the [salmon] run consumed by sea lions varies depending on run size. It has generally ranged between 2 and 4% since 2004, but was just 1.6% in 2011.” In contrast, sport, commercial, and tribal fishermen take up to 17% of the annual salmon run according to reports by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The nonprofit recently filed a lawsuit to save the embattled sea lions.
As sport fishing is a key source of revenue and recreational activity for states along the Columbia River, it seems as though the voice of the anglers carries far more weight than the reality of the situation. A taskforce convened in fall 2011 by NMFS to make recommendations to approve or deny applications to lethally remove sea lions along the Bonneville Dam was stacked against the sea lions. Among 16 members of the taskforce, 14 voted in favor of the states’ applications. Those who voted against were HSUS representative Sharon Young and Daryl Bonness, independent research scientist and current Chairman of the Marine Mammal Commission. Stated Bonness, “I do not believe based on the data available that efforts to kill California sea lions are going to solve the problem and therefore they should not continue under Section 120.” Despite the data, on March 15, 2012, James Lecky, Director of the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, NOAA, signed a letter authorizing lethal removal of California sea lions -- a species protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act - from the Bonneville Dam.
Lecky has a well-documented history of ignoring math and science and caving to the vocal needs of special interests. In 2002, he ignored scientific evidence from NMFS scientists and made a call that led to one of the largest fish kills in US History. As many as 70,000 salmon have died because water was diverted from the Klamath River for agricultural use. In 2007 testimony to the Congressional House Natural Resources Committee, former NOAA Fisheries Biologist Mike Kelly recounted being directed by Lecky to conclude, contrary to available evidence, that sharply reduced flows would not adversely affect federally protected salmon. “I was asked to make 1 + 1 = 3,” he stated, noting that the order was both “bizarre” and illegal. A 2007 article published in The Washington Post, linked the decision all the way up the chain of command to Vice President Dick Cheney.
In the wake of the fish kill, Lecky was promoted to his current position as NMFS Director of Protected Resources. In this capacity he oversees all biological opinions on threatened and endangered species for NOAA. Something is fishy at the federal fisheries agency. The math just doesn’t add up...at least not for the animals the agency is mandated to protect. The salmon in the Klamath River needed water to survive. The sea lions at the Bonneville Dam need fish to survive. Overfishing and other factors including the dam itself has a far greater impact on salmon than the 30 sea lions now targeted for lethal injection. Sadly for those of us who care about protecting marine mammals, it seems as though it is easier for NMFS officials to scapegoat the sea lions than to find a real solution to the problems at the Bonneville Dam.