Congressman to Push Bill on Sea Lions

Fishery officials have tried just about everything to keep California sea lions from munching on threatened salmon migrating up the Columbia River -- from yelling at them to setting off firecrackers. But nothing has worked.

NORTH BONNEVILLE, Wash. -- Fishery officials have tried just about everything to keep California sea lions from munching on threatened salmon migrating up the Columbia River _ from yelling at them to setting off firecrackers. But nothing has worked.

On Monday, two Washington state congressmen announced at Bonneville Dam _ where the pesky and portly pinnepeds have been doing most of their munching _ that they are going to enlist Congress for help.

Sea lions are protected by federal law. But Republican Doc Hastings and Democrat Brian Baird said they will introduce a bill that would let officials from the two states, as well as American Indians, quickly obtain permits to kill a limited number of sea lions that are going after salmon in the Columbia.

"These sea lions have bellied up to an endangered salmon buffet and they will be eating thousands and thousands of fish right here this spring if we don't do something about it," Hastings said.

When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, there were about 50,000 California sea lions. Oregon officials say their numbers have grown to 300,000.

As their population increases, a growing number of the mammals have been feeding on threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia. The Bonneville Dam has become a favorite dining site for the sea lions, which pick off salmon as they go up the dam's fish ladders.

The number of sea lions waiting at the dam for migrating fish during spring runs has risen from about 30 in 2002 to as many as 100, according to Oregon and Washington officials.

In 1994, Congress amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act to let states apply to the Commerce Department for authority to remove marine mammals under certain conditions.

Oregon and Washington expect to submit their application for that approval later this month, but it could take 18 months to three years, said Curt Melcher, assistant administrator of the fish division for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The bill proposed by Baird and Hastings could allow the states to kill some of the sea lions as early as next spring.

Hastings said he, Baird, tribal officials and fish and wildlife agencies from the two states have been working on a solution for months.

"Doc and I are not happy that we have to reach this level. We would prefer that nonlethal means would succeed," Baird said.

"But quite frankly those nonlethal means have been tried for years here. We've tried calling the sea lions names, we've tried throwing cherry bombs at them, we've tried shocking them. They've basically said there's a free salmon meal here."

The two congressmen said they were optimistic about the chances of winning approval for the bill during the lame-duck session following the mid-term election next month.

"We've done this the right way," Baird said. "It's Democrat and Republican, it's bi-state, and we've met with all the stakeholders. I think they understand the urgency."

Under their proposal, officials from Oregon and Washington state and the Columbia River tribes would be able to apply for permits from the Secretary of Commerce to "lethally remove" up to 10 California sea lions over a 14-day period that are known to have "preyed upon salmon" and have resisted efforts to scare them off.

The expedited process would be temporary _ just three years.

The number of sea lions killed in a single year would not be allowed to exceed 1 percent of what's known as the Potential Biological Removal level. According to NOAA Fisheries, that level is "the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population."

Under that calculation, up to about 80 California sea lions could be killed a year.

Michael Garrity, associate director of American Rivers, an environmental group, objected to the bill replacing the need for a full-blown environmental impact statement with just a three-month public comment period.

"It seems like whenever the federal government's failures to restore these salmon become obvious, you often see relatively minor problems like sea lions scapegoated," Garrity said.

"What you really need to be addressing, if you want to recover salmon in the Columbia, is the number of salmon killed by dams, both juveniles and adults, and the habitat degradation in the tributaries."

Source: Associated Press

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