Find Fix for Smelt-eating Sea Lionsby Editorial Board
The Daily News, February 1, 2015
In 2011, we reported that it had been more than four years since members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest proposed a law making it easier to reduce the population of sea lions that dine on salmon and sturgeon at Bonneville Dam.
"We hope that it doesn't take another four years before fisheries folks come up with a plan that passes judicial muster," we opined.
Well, that was almost exactly four years ago and the fisheries folks haven't come up with such a plan.
They, and some members of Congress, are certainly trying, but their lack of progress can be attributed to slow bureaucracy and the fact that there are valid objections to the "lethal removal" policy, as it's euphemistically called in official documents.
Last week, Southwest Washington U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler co-sponsored a bill that would allow authorities to kill more sea lions on the Columbia.
The current form of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act allows killing of sea lions only after a lengthy process. Only specific animals identified as having eaten fish can be removed. Herrera Beutler's bill would streamline the permitting process and protect sea lion removal efforts against lawsuits.
Though the bill is supported by fishing organizations and state agencies, similar bills have failed to make it through Congress in three previous sessions. Similar legislation made it through the House last year, and perhaps the fact that Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate will sway the outcome this time. This isn't guaranteed, because support for sea lions crosses party lines. People who don't fish in the Columbia River may be more inclined to side with the critters with the big brown eyes, for which fish are part of their natural diet.
As we did four years ago, we support the bill allowing increased killing of sea lions. But we're concerned that, even if it becomes law, the higher bounty wouldn't have a significant effect.
Last year, the Washington and Oregon employees killed 15 sea lions at Bonneville; the bill introduced would allow approximately 85 sea lions to be dispatched in a year.
With the population estimate of sea lions in the lower Columbia River estimated to be as high as 6,000, replacements would be plentiful. About 200 sea lions have taken up residence at the East Mooring Basin in Astoria.
Much less is known about the sea lion population in the river between the dam and Astoria, though one federal report said the animals are eating adult salmon "in alarming numbers" in the mid-river reach.
To date, lethal removal of sea lions has been concentrated at Bonneville, though it seems that a program covering much more of the river would need to be enacted to significantly reduce predation.
As the current bill moves through Congress, the same arguments against lethal removal will be rolled out, such as the contention that the real problem for salmon include dams that impede fish -- making it easier for sea lions to catch them -- and a lack of habitat. Another often-advanced argument is that anglers kill more endangered fish than sea lions do.
We'll note that despite the impact of seals and sea lions, the spring chinook run was strong last year and is expected to be good again this season with a return of 312,600 fish.
These numbers aren't likely to sway fishermen, who would like to catch as many salmon as possible and would prefer to see the sea lions stay in the sea.
We'll rephrase the ending of our editorial from February, 2011: Again, we hope that it won't take yet another four years to set a policy that likely will be a compromise between what anglers and sea lion supporters would prefer.
Watch Bill Supports Killing Sea Lions at Bonneville Dam by Chris Holmstrom, KOIN 6 News, 1/29/15
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