WASHINGTON – Wildlife officials have tried shooting them with rubber bullets, chasing them with boats and scaring them with flares. Nothing has worked for long. Now federal lawmakers took the first step Wednesday toward making it easier for states and Indian tribes to kill some of the California sea lions that feast on endangered and threatened salmon in the Columbia River.
The population of California sea lions has steadily grown over the past three decades and now numbers nearly 250,000. About 75 of them make their way nearly 140 miles up the Columbia River to feed on smelt and salmon. They congregate near the Bonneville Dam on the border of Washington and Oregon, where fish gather and pass through a series of ladders on their way to spawning grounds.
By a vote of 29-13, a House committee passed a bill that would speed up the application process that states and Indian tribes undertake when obtaining a permit to kill sea lions. Under the legislation, a single permit would allow applicants to kill up to 10 sea lions in a single year.
Supporters of the legislation argue that the sea lions are not indigenous to that portion of the Columbia River. The sea lions have adapted to the easy supply of food at the dam and are removing a precious resource that state and federal governments have spent billions of dollars to protect.
“With all other methods exhausted, lethal removal of the most aggressive sea lions is the only option left to deter predation, help protect endangered salmon and recoup more of our region’s substantial investment in salmon recovery,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
California sea lions ate about 5,000 salmon last year at the dam, which represents about 1.4 percent of the salmon run.
Critics say that the sea lions are among the least of the problems facing fish in the Columbia River and that killing them would do little to benefit overall salmon numbers. The Humane Society of the United States has filed lawsuits to protect the sea lions from previous efforts to kill them. The organization argues that killing sea lions merely distracts from the key reasons that salmon populations have declined, such as the increase of harvest quotas and the introduction of bass and walleye.