A federal appeals court Tuesday halted the killing of sea lions that had been feeding on endangered salmon along the Columbia River, pointing out contradictions in the government's conservation policy that targets the natural predators while allowing fishermen to take many more of the scarce fish.
At least two dozen of the flippered predators have been captured and euthanized by the National Marine Fisheries Service since the federal government in 2008 authorized the agency to kill protected sea lions in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to prevent them from feeding on salmon and steelhead headed upstream to spawn.
An Oregon judge declined later that year to stop the lethal taking of "individually identifiable pinnipeds that are having a significant negative impact" on salmon stocks, as permitted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, saying that the fisheries service policy of killing sea lions to prevent them from consuming as much as 4% of the salmon gathering around Bonneville Dam was inconsistent with its assessment that fishermen could catch up to 17% of the stock without harming recovery efforts for the endangered species.
The National Marine Fisheries Service "did not adequately explain its finding that sea lion predation is having a significant negative impact on salmonid decline or recovery in light of its positive environmental assessments of harvest plans having greater mortality impacts," the panel said.
The judges added that the conflicting assessments of the effects of sea lion feeding and fishermen's take "raised questions as to whether the agency was fulfilling its statutory mandates impartially and competently."
The appeals court struck down the order authorizing the sea lion culling and told the agency to come up with a justification for its policy or revoke it.
The Humane Society of the United States, which brought the suit that was dismissed by the Oregon judge, hailed the appeals court ruling.
"The government's plan to kill sea lions for eating fish, while at the same time authorizing fishermen to take four times as many fish as sea lions, is irrational, and the court has rightly put a stop to it," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and head of animal protection litigation for the society. "It's time for the agency to abandon this plan and work cooperatively with us to protect both sea lions and salmon in the Columbia River."
Fisheries service officials in the Seattle regional office were not immediately available for comment.