Easy Answers Elusive
by Editorial Board
The days appear to be numbered for a few salmon-poaching sea lions who use the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River as their own all-you-can-eat buffet.
Washington, Oregon and Idaho had been seeking a solution to the sea lion dilemma for years, after failed attempts to drive off or relocate the offending sea lions.
The states didn't get exactly what they wanted in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service recommendation to kill 30 sea lions at the Bonneville Dam, but it's a good start considering the pinnipeds eat about 4 percent of the spring run at the dam.
When you take into account that some people have been lobbying to remove the dams from the Snake River and upset the entire system of electrical power, navigation and irrigation water to save salmon, sacrificing a few dozen sea lions doesn't seem like such an extreme measure.
Those who think sea lions are simply cute and funny blobs of blubber to be enjoyed from the shoreline might want to talk to some boat owners in Northern California, where sea lions have taken over vessels. A good-sized sea lion can sink a small boat. Some marinas have been abandoned entirely because of sea lions.
A permit was awarded in the 1990s to kill gluttonous sea lions at the Ballard Locks in Seattle, but the sea lions were spared by a public more interested in the mammals than the fish.
The offending sea lions were relocated to Sea World in Florida, but the damage already was done. The sea lions killed 65 percent of the winter steelhead at the locks and the fish population never recovered.
What has recovered quite nicely in the past few decades is the sea lion population on the West Coast. From only around 10,000 in the 1950s, the population now numbers 300,000.
Wildlife biologists say that is about the maximum number the environment can sustain. Despite a population that is maxed out at "carrying capacity," sea lions still are protected in U.S. waters under the Marine Mammal Act, hence requiring approval from the federal government to cull the herd of those wreaking havoc on salmon runs.
Killing the 30 most damaging sea lions at Bonneville Dam is one of four options for which NOAA will be taking public comments through Feb. 19.
The other options include doing nothing, which would further decimate the fragile salmon run; continue to try to find a hazing solution like rubber buckshot and loud noises, none of which have created long-term solutions; or kill all sea lions within five miles of the dam.
That last option may have the most lasting consequences for salmon survival, is closest to what the states requested and would result in the deaths of about 150 sea lions.
Any option is sure to be controversial.
Powerful groups are lined up on both sides, with the Humane Society of the United States opposing the sea lion kill and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission supporting the plan.
We don't envy any agency that's stuck in the middle of that fight.
Unfortunately, nonlethal methods have been tried repeatedly without success. Significant damage is being done to endangered salmon runs by a tiny percentage of the sea lion population.
When you weigh the two consequences, saving the salmon is the obvious choice to have the greatest benefit on our Northwest waterways.
Research: Which Salmon Hit Hardest by Sea Lions and Seals by Columbia Basin Bulletin, Chinook Observer, 1/3/8
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