VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — Federal legislation that would make it easier to kill sea lions that eat many endangered salmon in the Columbia River has cleared a key committee in the U.S. Senate.
The measure allows the federal government to issue permits to Washington, Idaho and Oregon, and several Pacific Northwest tribes, allowing up to 100 sea lions to be killed a year. Animal-protection advocates assert the number of authorized kills could be significantly higher.
Supporters include governors of those three states, fishing groups and tribes. They say the bill is needed to protect declining runs of salmon and steelhead.
Critics say it’s won’t solve the problem of declining salmon, which they attribute to loss of habitat, dams, historical overfishing and other factors.
The measure is co-sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, and James Risch, an Idaho Republican. It awaits a vote by the full Senate.
It’s similar to legislation the House passed earlier this summer. That was sponsored by Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican, and Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat.
Sea lion predation has been identified as a major factor in salmon mortality between the mouth of the Columbia and Bonneville Dam. For example, earlier this year during the spring salmon runs, Columbia Basin Bulletin reported that observed predation by sea lions from May 11 to May 24 was spring Chinook, five steelhead and three white sturgeon. Steller sea lions took 91 of the chinook, four steelhead, three sturgeon, five lamprey and nine unknown fish. California sea lions took 87 Chinook, one steelhead, two lamprey, two other types of fish and 19 unknown.
Some 611 spring Chinook were taken April 26 to May 10, along with 26 steelhead and five white sturgeon. Of the total 718 recorded predation events for all fish, Steller sea lions accounted for 82 percent of them.
It has been estimated that many other salmon are killed by sea lions out of sight of observers, who mostly monitor the area around the base of Bonneville Dam, where salmon and predators congregate.
Since 2008, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife have staffed a branding and removal program for California sea lions. According to a report from ODFW to NOAA Fisheries under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, one California sea lion was euthanized May 15.