The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has authorized (pdf) the states of Washington and Oregon to lethally remove California sea lions that eat thousands of endangered salmon and steelhead just below the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. According to NMFS, the small number of sea lions that prey on salmon and steelhead listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) have a significant effect on the ability of the fish stocks to recover. While the population of California sea lions is considered healthy and stable, the population of salmon and steelhead continues to decline – the authorization will allow state fisheries and natural resources agencies to reduce the sea lions’ effect on these vulnerable salmonid species.

NMFS originally gave the states authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 2008 to permanently remove identifiable sea lions that were feeding on ESA-listed fish. Environmental organizations brought suit to challenge the action in 2009. Last November, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that NMFS had violated the MMPA by failing to adequately explain its finding that sea lions were having a “significant negative impact” on the decline or recovery of salmonid species. NMFS believes the memorandum decision (pdf) issued in support of the authorization addresses the problems identified by the court.  According to the Seattle Times, however, the Human Society of the United States, an environmental organization that was a party to the 2009 litigation, filed suit today in federal district court challenging the new authorization.  (The Seattle Times, May 20, 2011, by William McCall.)