A federal appeals court has put a stop to a program in the Pacific Northwest that authorized the killing of sea lions in order to protect the stock of salmon in the Columbia River.
The National Marine Fisheries Service allowed the states of Oregon and Washington to kill up to 85 sea lions a year at the Bonneville Dam.
But the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday that the agency violated administrative procedures in reaching its decision.
Although the Marine Mammal Protection Act does allow NMFS to take action against predators to protect Endangered Species Act-listed salmon populations, the appeals court held that it did not follow the correct procedures under the Administrative Procedures Act.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Raymond Fisher said the agency "has not satisfactorily explained the basis of its decision."
The court remanded the case back to NMFS, which will have a second chance to justify the need for the program.
NMFS took action after the Army Corps of Engineers reported that the number of sea lions present had increased. The Army Corps also estimated that the number of salmon the sea lions were eating had also increased.
As part of its analysis, the service calculated that 86 sea lions would eat nearly 17,500 salmon a year.
The Humane Society of the United States immediately filed suit after NMFS revealed its plans. But the plaintiffs failed to convince U.S. District Judge Michael Mossman of the District of Oregon of the need to halt the program.
The plaintiffs had better luck before the appeals court. Fisher wrote that that agency did not explain how the sea lions were having a "significant negative impact" on the salmon population or how it decided on what was the desired level of salmon population.
He also noted that NMFS has previously approved plans for fisheries to take a much larger percentage of the salmon population.
The court did, however, reject the plaintiff's claim that the agency had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement.
Jonathan Lovvorn, a Humane Society lawyer, welcomed the 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," Lovvorn said in a statement.
He called for the agency to "abandon this plan and work cooperatively with us."
An NMFS spokesman said officials were "disappointed in the court's decision" but had not yet had a chance to analyze the ruling.