Sea lions to the slaughter?


Every spring, hungry California sea lions rendezvous in the Columbia River at the base of the Bonneville Dam for an endangered salmon smorgasbord. After swimming 140 miles up river to the dam, some 100 sea lions munched over 6,000 salmon at the dam last year, about 2 percent of salmon and steelhead runs going through the dam. Between 2005-2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimated that sea lions ate up to 12.6 percent of endangered spring Chinook salmon at the dam.

The ongoing sea lion free-for-all has led wildlife managers to hazing with rubber buckshot, firecrackers and even death by lethal injection in an effort to protect endangered salmon, as well as the fisheries that depend on them. Between 2008 and 2010, wildlife agencies trapped and euthanized some 30 sea lions with the blessing of NMFS, despite the fact that California sea lions are federally protected, too. Predictably, NMFS was threatened with a lawsuit and in November, a federal court put a stop to the killing.

Now, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would revive the sea lion slaughter. The bill, called the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act, would once again let states and tribes kill sea lions to protect salmon. Shortly after NMFS stated it would not appeal the court's decision, Representative Doc Hastings, R-WA, introduced the bill in March -- the same bill that failed 2006.

"With all other methods exhausted, lethal removal of the most aggressive sea lions is often the only option left to deter predation, help protect endangered salmon and recoup more of our region’s substantial investment in salmon recovery," Hastings said in a press release.

But the effectiveness of previous sea lion control programs is hazy at best, as predation levels keep going up. That's due in part to increasing numbers of Stellar sea lions at the dam, whose stronger protection under the Endangered Species Act preclude killing them.

Clearly, sea lions aren't the only ones killing salmon -- dams and fisheries also do a lot of damage. The Ninth Circuit court decision pointed to the inconsistency of the NMFS conclusion that the allowed fishery take of endangered salmon -- up to 17 percent -- would have “minimal adverse effects,” while sea lions munching a smaller amount would have a “significant negative impact.”

The court, siding with The Humane Society of the United States and the Wild Fish Conservancy, responded:

NMFS cannot avoid its duty to confront these inconsistencies by blinding itself to them… in this case the agency’s seemingly inconsistent approach to, on the one hand, fishery and hydropower activities, which are deemed not to be significant obstacles to the recovery of listed salmonid populations, and, on the other hand, sea lion predation, which is deemed to be a significant barrier to salmonid recovery, has occupied the center of this controversy from the start.

The court said its findings "raise questions as to whether the agency is fulfilling its statutory mandates impartially and competently."

Much like recently proposed wolf legislation, Hastings' bill now seeks to legislate around the court's decision. If the bill passes, more sea lions will be killed to control their cravings for endangered fish. Regardless of how effective that may be, killing sea lions is certainly an easier way to save some salmon than taking out a dam, or quelling our own appetites.

Nathan Rice is an intern at High Country News.

Image of sea lion eating salmon courtesy the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Jeff Davis
Jeff Davis
Apr 08, 2011 01:01 PM

It's an absolute disgrace that Mans greed has caused all of these problems and we still aren't happy. How any court in this country can justify killing an endangered animal for eating is beyond me. This is 100% GREED and everybody should see that. It's not that people are going to starve to death if these sea lions stay but the profits won't be as high. We act like because we spend time and resources in managing the Salmon that we own them or something. Maybe if we hadn't destroyed so much of the environment or raped the oceans of whatever we can get our nets on thes sea lions would have more choices and not interfere with American Owned Salmon. We always talk about the Japanese killing whales and dolphins and all the countries that kill sharks and we act like they are all barbarians or something but look at us. Once again the new American tradition is thriving..."If something keeps you from a profit, you have the right to kill it". What a shame that we are at this point as humans. Boy did the Indians have it right or what. I forget though, what did we do to them?

Laurence Bucklin
Laurence Bucklin
Apr 08, 2011 08:15 PM
What is an absolute disgrace is that anyone who is so absolutely unknowledgable on the issue and its underlying facts is allowed to spout - but that is the American way.

The first fact that is wrong is that California sea lions which have been the worst offender and the species subject to lethal removal are not endangered. Period. However, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The problem is that every year a growing number of California sea lions heavily predate certain salmon species that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

As the article intimated Stellar sea lions are now becoming a problem (apparently the feeding frenzy hotline is working) not only relative to protected salmon but also white sturgeon which, as a population, is of concern to managers. Due to their size Stellars are able to catch and kill the large sexually mature females which are otherwise protected. And Stellars may soon be removed from the ESA.

Oh, and as far as Indians be advised that local tribes are supportive of lethal removal.

But Jeffie, don't let the facts get in the way of your opinions!