Panel looks to reduce threat of sea lions to fish

By KEVIN FREKING | October 5, 2011 | 4:00 PM EDT

FILE- In this April 24, 2008 file photo, a sea lion eats a salmon in the Columbia River near Bonneville Dam in North Bonneville, Wash. Federal lawmakers are considering 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. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 are considering 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.

The House Natural Resource Committee was expected to pass legislation Wednesday that would speed up the application process that states and Indian tribes undertake when setting out to kill sea lions. Under the new process, state and tribes could obtain a permit allowing them to kill up to 10 sea lions a year.

Supporters of the legislation testified at an earlier hearing that the California 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.

California sea lions ate about 5,000 salmon last year at the dam, which represents about 1.4 percent of the salmon run. Dam construction, the introduction of non-native fish and the protection of sea lions has all contributed to the salmon population's decline.

"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 Yakima Nation, in testifying last June for passage of the bill.

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."

"This bill would have us shoot sea lions simply for being hungry," Markey said. "What crimes have sea lions actually committed here?"

Markey eventually withdrew the amendment before a vote was held on it.

The Humane Society of the United States has sued to protect the sea lions from previous efforts to kill them. The organization and opposing lawmakers said that killing sea lions merely distracts from the key man-made reasons that salmon populations have declined, such as an increase in 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, Rep. Doc. Hastings, R-Wash., has introduced similar legislation before and it remains to be seen what traction it will gain. So far, nothing similar has been introduced in the Senate.

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 argues that the current process of approving applications to kill sea lions doesn't work in a timely manner. His legislation would require the secretary of commerce to approve or deny an application to lethally remove sea lions within 30 days.

Under the bill, the entities eligible for killing California sea lions at the dam include the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as various Indian tribes.