updated 9/22/2006 11:03:10 AM ET 2006-09-22T15:03:10

Oregon and Washington are drafting a proposal for "limited selected lethal removal" of protected California sea lions in the Columbia River to ease pressure on the spring chinook salmon run.

The proposal could be ready for the federal government next month, said Charles Corralino, who heads the conservation and recovery program for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He said the states are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Columbia River tribes.

A salmon fisherman said the sea lions are affecting both salmon and sturgeon and need to go, but an official of the Humane Society of the United States said removal would only make it look like something is being done while ignoring the more serious issues.

It could be two to four years before federal approval is given.

If it is, it could be a grim-gram for C404, probably the smartest and easily the most famous of the sea lions who gather at the base of Bonneville Dam each spring looking for an easy snack.

C404 got famous by foiling every effort to keep him and his buddies out of the fish ladders the salmon use to get past the dam on their way upriver to spawn.

His name reflects the brand fishery officials gave him for identification. Since 2003, he has been showing up almost on a timetable for the spring chinook run.

"It is a conservation issue," Corralino said Thursday. "Sea lions and salmon have lived in harmony since the rocks cooled."

When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, there were about 50,000 California sea lions. There are about 300,000 today, he said, implying the protection act may have worked too well.

"It has gotten out of balance," he said.

The California sea lions are not listed as endangered or threatened but are protected. One segment of Steller sea lion, which also is in the Columbia, is listed as endangered.

Corralino said there is serious concern for the health of the spring chinook run.

Guy Norman, regional director for southwest Washington for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said some sea lions would be killed. But, he said, "We hope to minimize that and focus on those who most contribute to the problem" and also those who don't respond to nonlethal deterrents.

At a time of uncertain salmon returns and increased demand, the sea lions by some estimates eat about 3 percent of the fish that gather at the base of the dam, the first one they hit on their journey upriver from the Pacific Ocean.

Commercial and tribal fishermen have been urging such action for years.

Corralino said the proposal would be limited to sea lions in the Columbia River.

He said the state has tried hazing the salmon with loud noises, huge firecrackers and rubber bullets for two years, and those efforts will increase.

He said the proposal would involve "limited" (in number) "select" (the worst repeat offenders) "lethal" (self-explanatory) removal.

The ultimate decision will rest with the U.S. secretary of commerce, now Carlos Gutierrez, whose department oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Corralino said the only previous such removal effort was in the 1990s at the Ballard Locks in Seattle.

But after protests, a Humane Society lawsuit and a clemency plea from President Clinton, the worst of the lot got packed off to Sea World in Orlando, Fla., and none was killed.

Meanwhile, Corralino said, the winter steelhead run through the locks was effectively wiped out.

Astoria salmon fisherman Brian Tarabachia applauded the removal idea Thursday but said the endangered Steller sea lions should be left alone.

"From a fisherman's standpoint and a salmon advocate I would certainly recommend the removal of the California sea lions," he said.

"They have an effect not only on salmon but in the past couple of years they have moved on the sturgeon. They are eating the oversize fish, 60 or 70 years old. These are the breeding stock."

Sharon Young, field director for marine issues for the Humane Society of the United States, said sea lions aren't the real issue.

"The killing of the sea lions will not solve the problem when there are a lot of other animals around," she said.

She said killing sea lions is easier than taking on thornier issues such as hydroelectric dams and agricultural runoff.

"When you start taking out sea lions it looks like you're doing something to help the problem when all you are doing is distracting from the real problems," she said.

"We are committed to saving the fish but killing the sea lions is not the way to do it. Killing sea lions is a waste of time, money and lives."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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