Federal officials have recommended loosening the law to allow wildlife authorities to shoot sea lions and harbor seals that are particularly troublesome.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has recommended that Congress drop blanket protection for the marine mammals to help protect declining salmon stocks.
An 18-page report also recommends that state and federal wildlife authorities be allowed to shoot individual sea lions and harbor seals that can’t otherwise be stopped from interfering with marina or fishing activities.
The recommendations aren’t intended to allow immediate killing of sea lions and harbor seals, said Brian Gorman, a Seattle-based spokesman for the Marine Fisheries Service’s parent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Instead, they are intended to shorten the process which can require two years of review before any waivers are granted to allow state and federal wildlife authorities to shoot animals that won’t leave the salmon or marinas, said Gorman.
“I’m sure there will be passionate arguments on both sides,” he said.
Federal officials have recommended that Congress change the shooting restrictions when it renews the Marine Mammal Protection Act, probably this fall or next spring.
The basic rationale for the change is that six runs of wild salmon are listed as endangered or threatened, and others are expected to be.
Gorman said it is possible that all runs of wild salmon and steelhead will be placed on the endangered species list in the next few years.
Although sea lions and seals aren’t the major reasons for the troubles in the salmon fisheries, their numbers are growing and they are setting up near dams and fish-passage facilities with increasing frequency, said the report to Congress.
“Rather than an issue due strictly to pinniped population size, the impact on salmonoids is likely due to opportunistic behavior by certain individual pinnipeds that have learned to exploit situations where salmonoids are concentrated and particularly vulnerable,” the report said.
Since the no-shooting restriction took effect in 1994, only one exemption has been sought, Gorman said.
That case was in Seattle, where five or six sea lions stationed themselves near a lock and feasted on salmon trying to get to their spawning grounds.
In the two years it took to explore, review and discuss that situation, Sea World in Florida volunteered to house the troublesome sea lions so they wouldn’t be shot as wildlife officials intended, Gorman said.
The federal government shouldn’t expect much support from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for its shooting proposal.
“I don’t think the salmon are truly in trouble because of six sea lions,” said Lisa Hoefler, director of community services for the Monterey County SPCA.
“Shooting sea lions seems a little bit shortsighted at this point,” she said. “If we’ve got a problem with the salmon populations, we need to take a look at the populations.”
Pollution in spawning streams should be considered before sea lions are blamed for the salmon shortage, Hoefler said.
The city of Monterey has had some celebrated run-ins with the barking sea lions - in the summer of 1991 when a number of them tried to take over some docks in the marina and last summer when hundreds of juveniles showed up and spread from the traditional rookery along the jetty at the Coast Guard pier.
But the city found fences and people with brooms provided effective behavior modification, said Carl Anderson, the city’s public facilities director.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.