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. Officials said that dam construction, the introduction of non-native fish and other factors such as protection of the sea lions has contributed to the decline of the salmon and steelhead population in the Northwest.
"Man's involvement has tilted the scales away from the salmon and we must intervene to help balance the impact," said Virgil Lewis, a member of the Yakama Nation, in testifying for the bill last June.
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. They say another sea lion will eventually come along to replace the one that was killed. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the committee, offered an amendment that would rename the bill the "Shoot Sea Lions for Eating Fish Act." He subsequently withdrew it.
"This bill would have us shoot sea lions simply for being hungry," Markey said. "What crimes have sea lions actually committed here?"
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.
The legislation has support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the region. State wildlife agencies have also lent their support to the effort through their testimony at congressional hearings. Still, Hastings has introduced similar legislation before and it remains to be seen what traction it will gain. So far, nothing similar has been authored for the Senate to consider.
In 2008, federal officials gave states the authority to kill up to 85 sea lions each year, but a federal appeals court halted those efforts. In August, the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho again requested authorization from the federal government to lethally remove sea lions at Bonneville Dam. Federal officials are reviewing the application.
Hastings said it's clear that the application process is broken. His bill would require the secretary of the Commerce Department to act on application requests within 30 days of receiving an application.