States Can Continue Killing Sea Lions to Protect Salmon

Published July 11, 2012

Fish and wildlife officials in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington may continue killing California sea lions preying on salmon near the Bonneville Dam, a federal district court has ruled. The court’s decision is a defeat for the Humane Society, which had sought an immediate injunction against the states.

Male California sea lions gathered near the Bonneville Dam, the lowest dam on the Columbia River, earlier this year to feast on salmon during their spawning run.

Legal Options Remain

“The Plaintiffs raise serious questions going to the merits of their complaint. The balance of hardships and the public interest, however, do not tip sharply in favor of Plaintiffs, which is required for the issuance of a preliminary injunction when there is not a clear likelihood of success on the merits,” Judge Michael H. Simon wrote in his opinion. 

Although it lost its bid for an immediate injunction, the Humane Society still will have an opportunity to persuade the court in a full hearing on the merits.

“The judge’s finding that raised serious questions about the legality of the program validates everything we’ve been saying about the program for years—that the National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to kill hundreds of native marine mammals to reduce salmon losses by a couple of percentage points at best, while simultaneously authorizing much larger manmade sources of endangered salmon mortality, is both arbitrary and outrageous,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States.

Cultural Preference

John Charles, president and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute, a free market think tank based in Oregon, says the entire controversy over salmon in the Northwest is a matter of cultural preference. 

“Killing sea lions because they eat salmon is a contrived issue. There is no scientific argument for or against sea lions, any more than there is an argument for or against salmon,” he said. 

Other Protection Options

California sea lions typically consume approximately 2 percent of the salmon that reach the Bonneville Dam, including species listed under the Endangered Species Act, Young said. With the killing of sea lions this year, more salmon will survive in the dam area than in previous years. 

Critics argue sea lions consume far fewer fish than are taken by tribal and nontribal fisheries and far less than are killed by dams. 

“If the states and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are concerned about hastening recovery of the listed salmon, we would like to see them take meaningful action to address the human impacts that are slowing the recovery trajectory rather than pointing the finger at sea lions and demanding they be killed,” said Young. 

Taxpayers Are the Losers

Young said federal law allows the killing of sea lions when the NMFS proves sea lions are having a significant negative impact on salmon population. 

“Personally, I would like to see us stop spending the vast amount—probably in excess of $800 million a year—on salmon ‘restoration’ programs, but since salmon have become religious icons I suppose that is a futile hope,” said Charles. “The sea lion defenders will continue to argue with the salmon defenders, and taxpayers will pay for it, with no social benefit. That’s politics.” 

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.