PORTLAND, Oregon The states of Oregon and Washington agreed on Wednesday to suspend euthanizing sea lions caught feasting on endangered Columbia River salmon until September while the courts consider a lawsuit challenging such killings.
The states contend that the California sea lions, which swim 140 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean to gorge on salmon and steelhead trout at the Bonneville Dam, are a threat to the recovery of the fish.
But critics argue that other factors, such as commercial and recreational fishing and barriers posed by hydroelectric projects, inflict far greater harm and could be better regulated to protect salmon moving upriver to spawn.
"Blaming sea lions is nothing but a distraction from facing up to the more politically difficult reasons why salmon are in trouble," Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, said in a statement.
His group and the Humane Society of the United States sued the National Marine Fishers Service last Friday a week after the federal agency gave Oregon and Washington permission to resume capturing and killing California sea lions they deem to be most voracious salmon consumers at the dam.
Columbia River basin Chinook salmon and steelhead have been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since the early 1990s, when their populations were declared to be perilously low. The estimated number of salmon and steelhead eaten by California sea lions has also risen steadily, peaking at 5,000 last year, according to the fisheries service.
One sea lion was euthanized earlier this month under a program that would allow as many as 85 of the salmon-eating pinnipeds to be killed per year.
The states agreed Wednesday to halt further killings until at least September 1 while the legal challenge is under review, saying the period of heaviest sea lion predation had passed.
"This is typically the time when we would end the operation," said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said the sea lion problem occurs primarily between early April and late May, the height of the spring run of Chinook salmon.
Salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia River after several years at sea must make their way through the Bonneville Dam to reach spawning grounds upstream. Sea lions congregating at the dam are able to dine on the vulnerable salmon as they move through "fish ladders" designed to ease their passage.
Since 2008, 27 sea lions caught gobbling salmon have been euthanized. Another 10 have been placed in zoos and aquariums.
Under Wednesday's agreement, the states may continue "hazing, trapping and marking California sea lions" that feed at the dam, but not kill them.