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Know the West

Update: New law makes it easier to kill salmon-eating sea lions

In the Columbia River, up to 920 sea lions can be removed each year to protect fish.


The new law will allow ten times as many sea lions to be killed in the Columbia River compared to what is currently allowed.


Sea lions were once hunted almost to extinction, but the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act helped them rebound to around 300,000 today. Thousands swim the lower Columbia River up to Bonneville Dam, hunting spawning sturgeon, lamprey and threatened and endangered salmon. Nearly half of the spring chinook salmon run vanishes before even reaching the dam; biologists think the sea lions are the primary culprit.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has hazed the federally protected mammals away from the Bonneville fish ladders for years, using noisy shells and non-lethal “seal bombs.” They’re allowed to kill the most persistent fish eaters, but only after going through a lengthy permitting process. Critics say sea lions are getting the blame for a decline caused by much larger problems, such as dams, habitat loss and invasive fish (“Sea lions feast on Columbia salmon,HCN, 8/17/2015).



In late December, President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill making it easier to kill sea lions that prey on sensitive fish populations in the Columbia and some tributaries. The permits, issued to Washington, Oregon, Idaho and several tribal nations, are good for up to 5 years. The animals targeted must be individually identifiable, and must be killed humanely “by chemical methods.” Up to 920 sea lions can be euthanized each year, instead of the 92 currently allowed. State wildlife officials say that the bill should help prevent some salmon and steelhead runs from going extinct. But Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said it misses the point: “Conducting some farcical sea lion hunt while the salmon try to jump a hundred-foot-tall concrete barrier to reach their natural habitat is not my idea of sound environmental policy.”