HomeEnvironment & Climate NewsFederal Government Approves Killing Protected Sea Lions to Save Endangered Salmon

Federal Government Approves Killing Protected Sea Lions to Save Endangered Salmon

At the behest of in wildlife managers in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington state, a federal task force granted those states’ fish and game agencies the authority to kill hundreds of sea lions across the a large portion of the Columbia River basin to save the region’s struggling steelhead and salmon populations from extinction.

Sea Lion Protection -> Salmon Decline

Marine mammals, including sea lions, are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), developed to help whales, polar bears, sea lions, seals, walruses, and various other marine-dependent mammals recover from decades of virtually unregulated hunting and exploitation at a time when their populations were dwindling. Since its enactment, populations of sea lions, as with other protected marine mammal species, have dramatically increased. That has resulted in their enormous consumption of various endangered and threatened salmon species which migrate from the sea each year along the Northwestern Pacific coast to spawn in the region’s rivers.

Beginning a couple of decades ago, sea lions—the largest of which, the Stellar sea lion, can top 2,200 pounds—discovered they could feast on the migrating fish where they bottleneck at dams’ fish ladders or swim up tributaries to spawn. State and federal wildlife managers have struggled to balance protecting salmon populations without harming protected sea lions ever since.

Early attempts to save salmon by sedating some of the sea lions, tagging them, transporting them hundreds of miles down the coast, and releasing them failed because the relocated sea lions returned to their previous feeding grounds. Additional efforts such as the use of explosives, fake mechanical killer whales, and rubber bullets also failed to prevent sea lion predation on migrating fish populations more than temporarily.

Protection Modified

Faced with a continued decline in salmon and steelhead populations caused in part by the growing sea lion population, federal authorities began allow state wildlife managers to kill limited numbers of California sea lions at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River around 2007. However, before any sea lion could be killed, wildlife authorities were required to document each specific animal they proposed to take in the area five times, observe it eating salmon, and wait for it to enter a trap. These restrictions resulted in just 238 California sea lions being killed over 13 years, a number so small it failed to limit the growth of the sea lion population in the area.

Changes made to the MMPA in 2018 allowed authorities to take a sea lion without first complying with the previous conditions requiring documentation of particular sea lions repeatedly eating fish.

Under the modified rules, Oregon officials killed 33 sea lions decimating steelhead populations on the Willamette River in 2019. Before the cull, scientists tracking sea lion predation in the area estimated the animals ate approximately one-quarter of the returning steelhead. Steelhead populations have already begun rebounding since the sea lions were culled.

The permit issued on August 14 allows wildlife authorities and several Native American tribes in the region to tranquilize, capture, or trap any sea lion along a 180-mile stretch of the Columbia River, as well as in several tributaries, transport it to another location, and give it a lethal injection.

The modified rules still bar wildlife authorities and tribes from shooting sea lions, and the permit sets a limit on the number of sea lions that can be taken over the next five years to 540 California sea lions and 176 Steller sea lions. The permit marks the first time the federal government has allowed the killing of the large Steller sea lion.

Necessary to Save Salmon

Expanding the take of sea lions along the Columbia River and its tributaries is only one step wildlife authorities are undertaking to help the region’s salmon populations survive, but it is a necessary step, Shaun Clements, a senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Associated Press.

“They need all the help they can get,” said Clements. “These are places where the fish are really vulnerable, [and] we have to manage this so the fish can get through to spawn.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (hsburnett@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute.

H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is the director of The Heartland Institute's Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

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