It should not be a capital crime to engage in an essential feeding behavior. Yet in the mixed-up ideologies of old-school proponents of predator control and fisheries management, that’s just what happens. As a result, California sea lions in Oregon and Washington face the prospect of being killed because they eat fish. Mind you, both the salmon and the sea lions are native, and their predator-prey relationship has endured for thousands of years.
In recent years, the federal government granted lethal take permits to Oregon and Washington with the intention of cutting down on sea lions killing native prey. Now that the authorization is set to expire, the states are pleading with the federal government to renew the permits to allow them to kill more sea lions over the next five years.
The sea lions contribute only a small percentage of the total take of chinook salmon. We humans are responsible for a far larger share of the mortality. Salmon return each spring to spawn in the tributaries of the Columbia River, and the greatest cause of their deaths is the series of dams and blocked passages that threaten their ability to travel and reproduce. In 2015, a court ordered the states to fix hundreds of barriers built under state roads and highways that block access for migrating salmon, yet action to comply with that decree has been slow and grudging. What’s more, fishermen are allowed to catch and kill up to 17 percent of the salmon in the spring run. Many of the fish that die are from endangered stocks.
Yet another human-caused factor contributing to the salmon’s troubles are non-native bass and walleye, intentionally dumped in the river to create more recreational opportunities for sport fishermen. A report by government scientists found that these non-native fish eat up to two million young salmon each year and compete with the adults for spawning habitat.
Despite all these threats, the size of the spring salmon run is not declining. A 2015 government report to Congress found the spring spawning salmon runs are “stable.” As a matter of fact, far from being decimated by sea lions, the spring run size in 2015 was the third highest since 2001.
The HSUS has been a big player in this controversy for years. In 2008, we filed a lawsuit to block plans by the federal government to kill or capture up to 425 sea lions near the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, which divides Oregon and Washington. After a lengthy court battle, in 2010, a federal appellate court rejected the sea lion removal plan, specifically noting that salmon mortality from controllable human activities (including commercial and recreational fishing, and operation of hydropower facilities) far exceeds sea lion predation rates. A 2011 authorization to kill or capture sea lions on the Columbia River was also rejected as a result of a second HSUS lawsuit. These lawsuits prevented dozens, if not hundreds, of sea lions from being killed. In 2012, the states were finally authorized to kill up to 92 sea lions each year. Already this year, they have killed 32 sea lions at the Bonneville Dam.
Please write to the National Marine Fisheries Service and ask the agency to deny the permit allowing Oregon and Washington to continue the killing. These states need to focus on active management of the human factors that are the greatest threats to salmon. It’s wrong, and wrong-headed, to scapegoat a native species for just doing what comes naturally.