Congress Proposes Relaxing Sea Lion Protections

Published March 10, 2015

The Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, a proposed amendment to the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, could soon give tribal members and government fishery managers in the Columbia River Basin authority to kill sea lions threatening endangered salmon populations.

U.S. Reps Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR) introduced the amendment on January 27.

The legislation is intended to improve the ability of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State to manage growing sea lion populations because they are reducing steelhead and salmon stocks. The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes will also be eligible for expedited lethal take permits.

Nearly identical legislation introduced each year from 2012 to 2014 was never allowed a vote under the then-Democrat-controlled Senate.

Beutler says the voracious sea lions threaten the fishing culture and economy of the Northwest. “Salmon are part of the very fabric of the Pacific Northwest, which is why significant resources are spent making sure they survive and can continue to support recreational, cultural, and economic interests,” Beutler said.

Sea Lion’s Threaten Salmon

Sea lion predation of migrating fish has steadily increased since 2002. Before that, it was uncommon for sea lions to travel up the Columbia River. Now biologists estimate sea lions kill 20 percent of the fish travelling to their Bonneville Dam spawning grounds.

Since 1972, when the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was passed the California sea lion population has grown 5.4 percent per year. The population now tops 300,000.Over the same time period, the Steller sea lion population grew between 3 and 5 percent per year, resulting in a current population of up to 78,000 animals.

The legislation would allow lethal take permit holders to remove up to 1 percent of the annual Potential Biological Removal (PBR) level, the total number of marine mammals that may be removed from the population while allowing the stock to reach or maintain its optimal sustainable population.

At present population levels, permit holders would be allowed to take 92 California sea lions and 15 Stellar sea lions.

Calls for Market Solutions

William A. Dunn Fellow Terry Anderson of the Property and Environment Research Center opposes the legislation, saying, “Maybe the only thing more stupid is shooting barred owls which are taking over the infamous spotted owl’s territory in the Pacific Northwest.” Although Anderson agrees conservation of the fish species is important, he argues underlying incentives created by various wildlife protection laws put marine mammals and salmon at risk and require a more comprehensive, market-oriented solution.

For now, local biologists and tribal fishery managers argue killing the right number of sea lions will restore ecological balance, thus protecting endangered fish.

John J. Jackson, chairman of Conservation Force, agrees safeguarding the steelhead and other salmon populations requires culling the sea lions.

Jackson said, “If vice-versa, imagine salmon eating too many sea lions. We would support control of the salmon. Same for the sea lion.”

Nate Wilson ([email protected]) is an editor and research analyst at the National Center for Policy Analysis.