Authorities are investigating the weekend shooting deaths of six Pacific Coast sea lions that had been targets of a controversial federal program designed to keep the seals from devouring the dwindling salmon population.
After the shootings, U.S. wildlife officials suspended the program, which involved moving away and sometimes killing so-called predator seals.
The dead seals were found on top of a floating platform enclosed by a chain link fence — traps set by authorities in a federally restricted area along the Columbia River near the Washington side.
"That area where the traps are is also a boat-restricted area. It's monitored. It's marked," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Region, told ABC News.
"There are two questions: How did they die and how did someone gain access to the traps?" Gorman said.
Necropsies will be performed on the six animals — four California sea lions and two stellar sea lions. "There will be someone there from our enforcement division and probably the state police in Oregon and Washington," Gorman said. "There may be slugs to recover."
The animals, known for feeding on an endangered salmon population that gathers below the Bonneville Dam in April and May before swimming up river to spawn, were found dead midday Sunday.
The gates to the traps, which typically are kept open, had been manually shut, Gorman said. "Someone had to gain access to the traps directly," he said. "Clearly there is a question about how access was gained."
Gorman also confirmed that a federal authorization granted in March for officials in Oregon, Washington and Idaho to trap certain sea lions identified as persistent predators of the salmon stock has been put temporarily on hold. "The state with our blessing has decided to suspend further trapping for the time being."
The NOAA authorization, announced in March, actually gave the states the right to euthanize sea lions in specific circumstances — when the animal has been identified as a repeat offender feeding on salmon and there is no permanent holding facility to transport the animal.
A Ninth Circuit Court Judge, however, granted an injunction late last month that temporarily stripped state officials of the euthanization option. A hearing on the matter was scheduled for May 8, but Rick Hargrave, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that court date could be affected by the weekend shooting.
NOAA granted a 2006 request by the three states after years of "non-lethal" deterrents proved ineffective in stopping sea lions from gulping down salmon.
"Under this authorization, the states may shoot or capture and remove individually identified sea lions preying on salmon," the NOAA release announcing the authorization stated.
In the past several years, "hazing crews" made up of state and federal officials from Washington and Oregon as well as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, had been dispatched onto the water to protect the endangered fish. Neither flares nor rubber bullets drove away the hungry sea lions.
Males sea lions can reach 8 feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds; females can reach 6 feet in length and weigh 250 pounds.
The fishing community, including Native American tribes, had lobbied hard for some state control over the hungry sea lions, which previously were protected entirely by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. The California sea lion population has grown from 50,000 to about 300,000 since, but the salmon population has continued to fall.
Some of those sea lions have found a good spot for feeding on salmon in April and May below the dam on the Columbia River, which splits Washington and Oregon. Wildlife officials say that the sea lions, which eat five to seven salmon a day, devoured nearly 4,000 fish — or 4.2 percent of the run — last spring. In 2002, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers watched as 31 different sea lions ate 1,010 salmon and steelhead below the dam. The sea lions are also using the area to reproduce.
"What we're trying to do here is restore the balance," Hargrave said.
The federal government authorized state officials to remove up to 85 animals identified as predatory sea lions if no permanent holding facility is available, but estimated that the actual number would be closer to 30. Only one of the six sea lions killed these weekend would have met the threshold for removal, authorities said.
Seven California sea lions trapped along along the Columbia River since the authorization began on April 24 have been eligible for removal. One of those animals died while being transferred to a holding facility. The others will be brought to permanent facilities, including marine amusement parks, as a condition of the removal.
"It's kind of a polarizing issue," Hargrave said, laying out state and federal interests that are not entirely in line with either the Humane Society, for example, or the sportsmen. "Or focus is protecting the threatened and endangered salmon," he said.
Hargrave said that differing opinions on the issue may have played a role in animals shootings, but he did not want to speculate further. "Anytime there's poaching or killing of wild animals, that should bother anybody, regardless of the motivation behind this crime."
Federal authorities will also consider whether there is any connection between the Columbia River killings and the fatal shooting of three elephant seals Saturday along the California coastline. In that case, authorities said that someone likely shot the animals from the bluff overlooking the beach. Like the Columbia River killing, no suspect has been named in the California seal killings.
"Right now, we're just trying to figure out who did this," Hargrave said.