To protect salmon in the Northwest, states want to kill hundreds more sea lions

California sea lion population is booming in Morro Bay — ‘They are fat and happy’

California sea lions have made a dramatic recovery across the West Coast under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The number of sea lions has tripled from fewer than 89,000 in 1975 to 257,000 in 2014, according to a recent study. In Morro B
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California sea lions have made a dramatic recovery across the West Coast under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The number of sea lions has tripled from fewer than 89,000 in 1975 to 257,000 in 2014, according to a recent study. In Morro B

It's known as the "Bonneville Buffet."

Below Bonneville Dam, located 40 miles east of Portland, Ore. in the Columbia River Gorge, sea lions, sometimes by the dozens, gather to feed on tightly packed schools of salmon jostling to climb a fish ladder on their way to spawning grounds farther up the river.

The dam straddles Oregon and Washington, and the sea lions' voracious eating there affects fish populations in both states, as well as in Idaho and elsewhere.

Biologists have tried transporting the sea lions to other locations, but they just keep coming back. Other strategies, such as constructing barriers, shooting the animals with rubber buckshot and scaring them with firecrackers, have had little effect.

States currently are allowed to lethally remove 93 animals each year, but fisheries managers, tribal officials and others argue that's not enough.

Now, a bill that would give states the latitude to kill several hundred more sea lions each year along the Columbia has moved closer than ever to becoming law.

In late June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 2083, which would amend the 46-year-old Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow for state fisheries managers and tribal officials to kill as many as 930 sea lions a year on the Columbia and its tributaries to protect beleaguered fish populations.

The bill has bipartisan support in the Pacific Northwest, where commercial and recreational fishing pumps billions of dollars each year into regional economies, and fish numbers have been on a dramatic decline.

On the Columbia River and its tributaries, 13 varieties of salmon and steelhead are protected under the Endangered Species Act. For some species, just a few hundred return to spawn, a fraction of the numbers from a few years ago.

Meanwhile, sea lion numbers have risen, and, over the years, the mammals increasingly have journeyed more than 100 miles up river to gorge on salmon and other fish stuck at "choke points" such as man-made fish ladders on dams.

"We've got to be able to make those hard choices," said Noah Oppenheim, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, headquartered in San Francisco. "We've got to get over the 'fuzzy' factor. Sea lions are charismatic and well loved; they are also recovered. Salmon are nearing extinction."

The bill has broad support from Democrats and Republicans in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, states through which the Columbia River and its major tributaries flow.

Every House member from those states voted to approve the bill, which passed 288 to 116.

Prior to the House vote, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, both Democrats, joined Idaho's Republican governor, Butch Otter, to urge for the bill's passage.

"No one wants to harm these great marine mammals, but effectively dealing with a small fraction of the healthy sea lion population is preferable to losing unique and irreplaceable species of salmon," the governors wrote in a joint letter sent to congressional members earlier this year.

A nearly identical bill, sponsored by U.S. Senators Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., now is working its way through their chamber, where it has a good shot at passing because of its bipartisan sponsorship.

Major environmental groups and animal-rights organizations have yet to object to either bill. The Humane Society of the United States, for instance, hasn't voiced opposition to the plan, despite the animal-rights group having sued in federal court to block officials from killing up to 93 sea lions each year below Bonneville Dam. A judge last ruled in 2013 that Oregon, Washington and Idaho could continue the sea lion killing program.

A spokeswoman for the Humane Society declined to comment, other than to say the group was "neutral" on the plan.

However, other less prominent animal-welfare groups remain staunchly opposed. They say that instead of targeting sea lions, officials should focus on the human causes behind declining fish numbers, such as habitat loss, hydroelectric dams, pollution and fishing.

"(Sea lions) are not the biggest consumers of fish," said Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute. "We are."

Avoiding extinction

Backers of the bills agree that long-term solutions to ecological issues need to be developed, but in the short term, legislators need to give the fisheries managers tools to help stave off salmon extinction.

They note that fishermen only are allowed to harvest fish from stocks that aren't dangerously depleted. Anglers also have to abide by catch quotas and other regulations.

Sea lions, however, have no such restrictions.

Biologists estimate that as many as one in every four endangered spring-run Chinook salmon on the Columbia is consumed by a sea lion before it ever has a chance to spawn.

In recent years, sea lions also have started eating fish at Willamette Falls on the Willamette River, a Columbia tributary. The Oregon wildlife agency says the situation has gotten so bad on the Willamette that there's a 90 percent chance that the winter steelhead run will go extinct if the sea lion problem isn't addressed.

Meanwhile, the numbers of West Coast sea lion species — the California and the Steller — are on the rise.

There are nearly 300,000 California sea lions along the Pacific Coast, up from as few as 10,000 when they first were protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. The West Coast's population of Steller sea lions was taken off the Endangered Species List in 2013 after their numbers made a dramatic comeback.

As sea lion populations have increased, so have their forays into the Columbia in pursuit of salmon, steelhead and sturgeon heading up river to spawn.

An estimated 3,000 California sea lions now regularly inhabit the river and its tributaries, according to state, federal and tribal biologists.

"The abundance we're seeing now is unprecedented," said Charles Hudson, governmental affairs director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a group that represents Native Americans with rights to fish the river.

Hudson said the current rules involving the lethal removal of sea lions at Bonneville are too restrictive. Fewer than 60 animals are usually killed each year, he said.

Under the existing requirements, no sea lions are allowed to be killed on the Columbia's tributaries, including at Willamette Falls.

At Bonneville, before a sea lion can be killed, it first needs to be captured and branded or tagged. The animal has to then be spotted feeding for five consecutive days. If federal officials approve the extermination of the animal, the sea lion has to be captured again. It typically is killed by lethal injection.

The irony of it all, Hudson said, is that "as you are out on the river watching a tagged animal eat fish, there are 20 more untagged animals doing the exact same thing right next to it."

The House bill would allow fishery officials to target any sea lion past river mile 112 on the Columbia and on tributaries that contain protected fish. The bill also allows tribal officials to apply for permits.

Though states could kill as many as 930 animals each year under the bill, its backers say they doubt it will take more than a few hundred to start solving the problem.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of HR 2083's Republican sponsors from Washington, said she is glad she doesn't have to look at any more photos of fish mangled by hungry sea lions on the Columbia River.

Since being elected to Congress in 2010, her constituents have sent her image after image of partially eaten fish. "A lot of guts," Herrera Beulter said. "Dead guts."

But she said those photos helped her get support from many House members who otherwise might have balked at the notion of killing sea lions.

She said her House colleagues also were swayed by the argument that the sea lions are eating the same salmon that sustain Washington's fragile orca population.

"It has to be done if we want balance to the ecosystem," Herrera Beulter said of killing the sea lions.

'Out of Control'

Salmon anglers up and down the West Coast closely are watching the bill's progress.

HR 2083 makes no mention of any other fisheries outside of the Columbia system, but anglers on other rivers that feed into the Pacific say they also have seen a spike in sea lions heading upstream to gorge on migrating fish.

Scott Feist, a fishing guide from California's Central Valley, said sea lions regularly venture more than 100 miles upriver from the mouth of the Pacific Ocean at the Golden Gate Bridge to prey on salmon.

He said that during a 2017 outing, sea lions snacked on six of the nine fish his clients reeled in while they fished the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers near downtown Sacramento, approximately 105 miles upriver from the Golden Gate.

Those fish aren't in immediate danger of extinction, Feist said, but he shudders to think about sea lions eating the threatened and endangered salmon that run up the Sacramento River at other times of year.

"The sea lions have gotten out of control," he said.

Anglers' frustration with sea lions is nothing new, and it occasionally boils over into violence. Since 2003, federal officials say they have investigated at least 11 cases in which sea lions were shot along the West Coast. (Sea lion advocates also say poaching is an issue.)

Rose of the Animal Welfare Institutes fears that if Congress passes the legislation, it could lead to more people illegally shooting sea lions.

"I feel like they'll think they could do it with greater impunity because it will be easier to say to a court ... 'Well, they can kill them in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. They're stealing fish off my line. Why can't I do it here?'" Rose said.

Oppenheim, from the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, condemned the illegal killing of sea lions. "Certainly, we don't support vigilante sea lion justice," he said.

He added that West Coast anglers shouldn't hold their breath that Congress is going to apply the lethal methods envisioned under HR 2083 to sea lions swimming up other rivers anytime soon.

The sea lions eating fish in other waterways can't compare to the feasting that's occurring on the Columbia, he said.

"There's no analog for the Bonneville Buffet," he said.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow