Scapegoating Sea Lions Won’t Save Salmon

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was passed in 1972. Over the years it was amended, but its fundamentally protective nature has remained unchanged. The statute outlawed the killing of any marine mammal, with limited exemptions. Activities such as sport and commercial hunting and culls of “nuisance” animals, which were allowed in some states before this, ended that year, although fishing vessels retained the right to protect their gear and catch—that is, to shoot at animals such as sea lions as a deterrent while fishing.

In 1994, the MMPA was amended to outlaw “shooting from the stern” and to create a new fisheries management regime. However, amendments also allowed the intentional killing of individually identified seals and sea lions preying on endangered salmon species. This provision arose because a network of (mostly hydroelectric) dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries slow salmon down on their spawning migrations upriver. Very smart sea lions take advantage of these artificial “choke points” and feast on the fish as they mill around before mounting the narrow fish ladders at the dams.

These dams, as well as culverts and other human construction and activities, have also damaged salmon spawning habitat, further contributing to the decline in West Coast salmon. This decline has been a significant concern for local tribes and recreational and industrial fisheries. It has also raised concerns for another endangered species, the southern resident orcas, who are themselves natural predators of endangered salmon stocks.

In 1994, there was little or no public support for killing seals and sea lions. “Predator control” rarely works anywhere it is applied, especially when prey species are affected by multiple threats. Indeed, in many cases predators eat species that are themselves predators of the species in need of protection; for example, sea lions eat fish species (often introduced, non-native sport fish) that prey on young salmon. Thus, killing predators may not have the desired effect at all.

When states first applied to kill sea lions under this new provision of the MMPA, regulators set the upper limit for lethal removals at no more than 1 percent of the maximum number of animals who can be killed by human activity while remaining at an optimum population level (this is known as the potential biological removal level, or “PBR”). Only Washington, Oregon, and Idaho officials applied for kill permits. They set up platforms with cage traps near Bonneville Dam on the Columbia, onto which sea lions voluntarily climbed to rest. Animals were hot-branded, and if they were ever seen eating salmon, they were put on a list so that the next time they showed up on the traps, they could be caught and chemically euthanized.

Because these states consider the application process for lethal removal onerous, members of the Pacific Northwest congressional delegation periodically introduce legislation to allow easier approval. The proponents of these bills claim that sea lions are invasive in the Columbia River Basin, appearing far upriver to eat endangered salmon where “they’ve never been seen before.” In fact, according to historical records, seals and sea lions were once regularly seen feeding far upriver. Then commercial hunting and culls reduced them to a fraction of their original population and range. What bill proponents see as “overpopulation” has actually been a reoccupation of territory that no one living remembers as sea lion habitat.

These bills have always originated in the House of Representatives; on three occasions, they have passed out of committee. However, there was never any real fear of them becoming law, as they have historically lacked a Senate counterpart.

Until now.

In June 2018, a bipartisan bill (HR 2083) received a hearing in the House Committee on Natural Resources—with no expert witness opposed to the legislation invited to testify—and passed a House floor vote with minimal publicity. This bill was euphemistically named the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act. In truth, it is the Sea Lion Culling Act. For the first time, a bipartisan companion bill (S 3119) was introduced in the Senate. Within five weeks, the bill had passed the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee with no hearing at all. S 3119 could receive a vote by the Senate at any time.

The bills would allow for the killing of up to 10 percent of PBR, which means almost 1,000 sea lions could be killed every year. The bills also expand who can apply for permits—not only state officials but also local tribes and their contractors, meaning they can hire anyone to do the killing. S 3119 states that the primary killing method must be humane, but only 100-250 sea lions haul out on the trap platforms (making themselves available for chemical euthanasia) every season. Thus, it is likely permit holders will end up shooting animals, a cheap killing method that is not always humane and is open to abuse.

Meanwhile, since killing sea lions will not help the salmon, it will not help the endangered southern resident orcas, either. For 17 days last month, one of these whales, J35 (a.k.a. Tahlequah), carried around her dead newborn, who only survived for about 30 minutes after her birth. Many called this sad spectacle a “tour of grief” or a “protest.” Certainly it brought national attention to the dilemma facing the Pacific Northwest, with three iconic species—orcas, salmon, and sea lions—trying to find balance in a habitat profoundly altered by humans unwilling to breach dams, remove culverts, or otherwise make hard political and economic decisions to restore a natural ecosystem.

Tahlequah’s calf may not have died solely due to her mother’s nutritional stress, but it was probably a factor. The calf was the first to survive, even if only for moments, since 2015. Clearly the southern residents are in crisis. And yet legislators, rather than take real action, propose instead to kill sea lions for the crime of… eating. Human reliance on salmon is cultural, economic, industrial, and social—orcas and sea lions rely on them for survival.

HR 2083 and S 3119 are bad bills. They should not become law. If they do, salmon will still not recover and sea lions will die for nothing. Worse still, these killing bills would rip out the heart of the MMPA, undermining its protective foundation.

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