The federal program that allows Oregon and Washington to trap and sometimes kill sea lions in the Columbia River is up for re-evaluation. Though its success is still a little ambiguous, it deserves continuation.
It's important to acknowledge upfront that problems with salmon runs extend far beyond sea lion predation. Dams, habitat degradation, ocean health, Caspian terns, mergansers, hatchery practices and past over-fishing all play into the struggles of today.
Dams and reservoirs are the elephants in the room - their impacts on salmon dwarfing all other human-controlled factors. But since transformational changes in the Columbia-Snake hydropower system are highly unlikely, it is essential to carefully manage all the other things that go into salmon survival.
How big a role sea lions play in salmon problems varies depending on annual fluctuations in the size of salmon runs. Sea lions may kill one of every 50 spring Chinook salmon as they did this year, or a significantly higher proportion in years when fewer salmon return.
This might not seem like a big deal. There certainly are those who passionately argue that we should be willing to share salmon with sea mammals. And we are. Few if any would wish to see sea lions back on the verge of extinction.
But they have recovered, while many salmon species have not. This year, sea lions took an estimated 5,400 Chinook, the highest total ever observed. While most of these were hatchery-reared, some were wild. These are awfully expensive food for us to be providing for big sea-going bears that have plenty of other things to eat. The goal is to limit sea lion impacts to 1 percent or less of upriver-bound Chinook.
The hard-fought and long-delayed program to mark, trap and euthanize some of the sea lions just ended its third year. Twelve California sea lions were removed from below Bonneville Dam and killed, out of a total of 82 that were observed. There were at least an additional 53 Steller sea lions, which are not part of the trapping program.
There are many unanswered questions. It seems that sea lions are quick learners and many of the salmon gluttons already steer well clear of traps. Others are visiting the base of the dam, where salmon congregate, much more briefly than in earlier years. Better understanding sea lion behavior may eventually bring us to a point where most sea lions, humans and salmon can live in harmony.
About one thing, there is no question. This trapping hasn't had a detrimental impact on the sea lion population. The program should be renewed, while we still work on repairing all the other challenges to salmon success.