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.