By Teresa Carson
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - The Humane Society of the United States filed suit on Friday seeking to stop Oregon and Washington state from euthanizing sea lions caught feasting on endangered salmon in the Columbia River at the Bonneville Dam.
Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service gave the two states permission to resume capturing and killing California sea lions deemed to be the most egregious offenders.
Only one sea lion has been euthanized by Washington state since then, said Guy Norman, a regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We have no immediate plans to euthanize others, but we have permission until we hear otherwise," Norman said. Oregon officials were on a state furlough day and could not be reached for comment.
Salmon and steelhead trout returning to the Columbia River after several years at sea must make their way through the Bonneville Dam to reach their spawning grounds upstream. On their way they attract California sea lions, which swim 140 miles from the ocean to gather at the dam and gorge on the vulnerable migrating fish.
Since 2008, 27 sea lions have been euthanized, including the one killed on Thursday, and 10 others have been placed in zoos and aquariums. The U.S. agency estimates that about 70 to 80 sea lions are known to congregate at the dam at any one time, and they consumed 5,000 salmon last year alone.
The agency said up to 85 California sea lions at Bonneville may be killed annually, and only those known to be preying on salmon.
The Humane Society suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., says sea lions take just 0.4 to 4.2 percent of the 80,000 to 280,000 salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Columbia River each year. Fishermen are authorized to take up to 17 percent of adult fish, hydroelectric projects take 59 percent of adults, and birds 18 percent of juveniles.
"The killing (of sea lions) isn't warranted," Sharon Young, marine mammal field director for the Humane Society, said Friday.
The sea lions are consuming fewer fish than they did in the past, and the number of sea lions at the dam is decreasing, she said, suggesting other measures can be taken that would have a greater impact on salmon recovery.
The Humane Society was joined in the suit by the Wild Fish Conservancy. A representative of the U.S. government agency was reviewing the case and had no immediate comment.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)