For years, state and federal fisheries officials have used everything from firecrackers to rubber-tipped arrows to try to stop hungry sea lions from eating the fish that pass through the Ballard ship locks.
Now, they have another option: execution.
Following months of contentious debate, the National Marine Fisheries Service on Thursday approved the state’s request for permission to kill sea lions as a last resort to protect Lake Washington steelhead, a scarce game fish that swims through the locks to spawn.
“We’ve certainly tried everything we can think of,” said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the Commerce Department, which oversees NMFS. “This is clearly a last-resort attempt to solve a very serious problem with the steelhead run.”
But because of several strict conditions imposed by the fisheries service, it’s unlikely any sea lions will be killed anytime soon.
Before “lethal removal” can take place, the state must ensure all feasible and practical non-lethal removal methods have been exhausted, NMFS administrator Rolland Schmitten said.
For example, the state must try to prevent the sea lions from approaching the locks by using special noise-making devices to scare them away. It must also try to capture and find temporary holding facilities for sea lions identified as munching on steelhead. And the animals would have to be eating more than 10 percent of the steelhead run during a seven-day period before lethal removal could be considered.
Those were among the conditions recommended in November by a federally convened task force of scientists, environmentalists, fish organizations and others.
Dr. John Grandy, vice president of wildlife and habitat protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said he was pleased the fisheries service was emphasizing non-lethal solutions. But, he said, his group will go to court if state or federal officials move to kill any sea lions.
The California sea lions congregate each year outside the Ballard Locks, connecting Puget Sound with Lake Union and Lake Washington. From January through March, steelhead bound for spawning grounds in Lake Washington are funneled through a fish ladder at the locks, which makes them easy pickings for the hungry pinnipeds.
When the sea lions first started showing up in the 1986-87 season, some 1,172 steelhead passed through the locks, Gorman said. Last season, that figure dropped to 70.
Meanwhile, Washington’s population of California sea lions has grown from occasional sightings in the 1970s to nearly 500 today, NMFS said.
Overall, the population of the California sea lion is growing about 10 percent annually and now numbers more than 100,000, the NMFS said.
“Nobody knows what percentage of those fish are being eaten by sea lions, but suffice it to say it is a substantial amount,” Gorman said.
In past years, the fisheries service and the state have tried a variety of means to control sea lion predation: capturing and trucking them back to California, installing barriers and changing water flows at the locks, shooting the animals with rubbertipped arrows, feeding them badtasting fish and setting off firecrackers. But each year, the pesky mammals returned.
Under an amendment last year to Marine Mammal Protection Act, the state in July petitioned the federal government for permission to kill the nuisance animals. Such killings would be done “humanely” - such as by lethal injection - under the supervision of a veterinarian.
Schmitten said he would immediately make available $120,000 in federal funds to the state to identify and temporarily hold nuisance sea lions.
Fred Felleman of the Washington Environmental Council said fisheries officials have underestimated the number of Lake Washington steelhead, which are under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act. And he said officials should work harder on finding ways to get fish past the locks faster.
At the moment, he said, the fish are “sitting ducks.”
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