Bill to protect salmon, steelhead from sea lions clears U.S. Senate

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WASHINGTON D.C. — A bill designed to curb sea lions preying on at-risk fish populations on the Columbia River and select tributaries passed through the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 3119 amends the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which prohibits the killing of marine mammals, and puts into place a permit process that allows those with permits to legally kill sea lions that are part of a population or stock that is not listed as being depleted or at risk.

The bipartisan legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, R-Wash., is similar to one that was passed by the U.S. House over the summer, but there are some differences and lawmakers in the House and Senate will have to reconcile those difference and strike a compromise before the bill is sent to be signed by President Donald Trump.

“Wild salmon play a critical role in the economy, culture, and tribal treaty rights of the Pacific Northwest,” Cantwell said. “As endangered salmon face extinction, we must take steps to protect them. Science-based predation management will allow state and tribal wildlife officials to protect vulnerable salmon populations and the orcas that feed on them.”

The permits, which will be good for up to five years and can be renewed, puts the total number of sea lions authorized to be killed each year under all permits at no more than 10 percent of the annual potential biological removal level for sea lions. Under the bill, the taking of the sea lions is required to be humane and “require that capture, husbandry, transportation, and euthanasia protocols are based on standards propagated by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and that primary euthanasia be limited to humane chemical methods.”

The measure is not without it’s detractors from various animal rights and welfare groups, however. The Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit, was incensed about the legislation passing.

“It is reprehensible that certain members of Congress are exploiting the lame-duck session to fast-track ill-conceived legislation that significantly alters the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA),” Animal Welfare Institute policy advisor Ryan Ososki said. “The MMPA has the support of eight in 10 Americans, yet the Senate today voted (Thursday) to weaken this 46-year-old law in order to cull sea lions in the Columbia River and its tributaries.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been monitoring sea lion predation on salmon/steelhead below the Bonneville Dam in Washington from January through May since 2002. The number of California sea lions, which have been migrating north from California since the mid-1980s, has fluctuated over the years, but during the 16-year time span almost 4,000 fish have been consumed per year directly below the dam. 32 wild salmon populations in the Upper Columbia River and Snake Rivers are at risk of predation by sea lions below Bonneville Dam.

Under the bill, for a sea lion to be subject to lethal removal they, after having been previously captured and branded by a fishery, must be observed for at least five days on the river in question, have been subjected to hazing techniques and have been seen eating either a salmon or steelhead.

Richard Byrd can be reached via email at rbyrd@columbiabasinherald.com.

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