WASHINGTON — The California sea lions were unwelcome visitors from the very beginning, greeted with yells, rubber bullets and firecrackers when they swam up the Columbia River to gobble up thousands of endangered salmon at the Bonneville Dam.
When the harassment wouldn't scare them away, fishery managers turned to deadly force. They used traps and euthanasia, giving lethal injections to 30 sea lions from 2008 to 2010.
This spring, the sea lions have found safe harbor at the dam, about 50 miles east of Portland, Ore., after an appellate court in San Francisco ruled that states and the National Marine Fisheries Service had to stop the killings.
But the reprieve could be short-lived: The issue now has found its way to Capitol Hill, where Congress is being urged to intervene.
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Seeking to put an end to the invaders' free lunch once and for all, four members of the House of Representatives — Democrat Norm Dicks and Republicans Doc Hastings and Jaime Herrera Beutler, all of Washington state, and Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden — have teamed up on a bill that would give both states and Indian tribes a quicker way to get federal permission to kill the sea lions.
"With all other methods exhausted, lethal removal of the most aggressive sea lions is often the only option left," Hastings said.
The issue is an example of the delicate work involved in trying to manage animal populations. In this case, both the salmon and sea lions are protected by the federal government — the salmon by the Endangered Species Act, and the sea lions by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
As a result, the federal government goes to great lengths to try to protect both. Under normal conditions, killing a sea lion is a serious crime, punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Guy Norman, regional administrator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Vancouver, said the number of California sea lions has surged from about 30,000 to more than 300,000 in the past 35 years. He said the sea lions have learned that they have "a tremendous opportunity" to prey on the salmon while they're delayed before passing over the dam.
Norman said the number of sea lions, usually 100 or so, peaks at the dam from April through mid-May.
"It's been a management dilemma from Day One in terms of trying to balance the situation with endangered salmon versus a natural predator that's accessing these endangered fish in an unnatural setting," he said.
Last spring alone, the sea lions killed an estimated 5,000 salmon at Bonneville Dam, situated where the Columbia River passes through the Cascade Mountains and separates Washington and Oregon.
"That's a significant number of salmon — and they're endangered," Dicks said. "You've got an endangered species, and with these sea lions coming up from California, they're just hitting them pretty hard," Dicks said.
If the bill is passed, roughly 85 sea lions could get killed this year, under a complicated formula that would change the number each year based on population estimates.
The issue is pitting fishermen in the Pacific Northwest against animal rights advocates.
"Commercial fishermen are not excited about having to kill sea lions," said Bruce Buckmaster of Astoria, Ore., a board member of the group Salmon For All, comprised of commercial fishing interests. "There's no blood thirst here, but we just have way too many. ... Like everything to do with salmon in the Pacific Northwest, it's complicated. And it's hard to grasp how one thing makes a difference in the system."
Under federal law, sea lions can only be killed if the National Marine Fisheries Service can prove that they're having a significant negative impact on salmon.
In November, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco sided with The Humane Society of the United States and the Wild Fish Conservancy in stopping the killing, ruling that the standard hadn't been met. The court noted that fishermen were taking many more salmon than the sea lions.
"The government's plan to kill sea lions for eating fish, while at the same time authorizing fishermen to take four times as many fish as sea lions, is irrational, and the court has rightly put a stop to it," said Jonathan Lovvorn, the vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation for the Humane Society.
Kurt Beardslee, the executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, said that blaming sea lions for the decline in the salmon population "is nothing but a distraction" and that there could be many other factors, including dams, fisheries and habitat degradation.
In January, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it wouldn't appeal the court decision. That disappointed Hastings, who introduced the legislation on March 9.
Hastings said it would be unacceptable to expect residents of Northwest states to "sit by while a few sea lions gorge themselves on thousands of endangered fish."
Similar legislation was introduced in Congress in 2006, but it went nowhere. This year, prospects could be letter. The legislation has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee, which is headed by Hastings.
Backers of the legislation are more optimistic this time around.
Calling the legislation "well overdue," Buckmaster, the fishermen's representative, said the sea lions are eating an estimated 20 percent of the total salmon that are available for commercial fishermen in any given year, costing the industry "a huge amount of money."
"It's very clear that we have a healthy population of California sea lions and they simply need to be managed," Buckmaster said. "That's what we've been calling for. ... Why can't we manage? It's because a few people — the Humane Society of the United States — say those sea lions are more important than our communities and endangered salmon."
In the past three years, said Norman, the Washington state fish administrator, 10 sea lions were moved to zoos in Chicago and Texas or to other alternative sites, but he said they're in low demand. The 30 that were killed were given a lethal injection by a qualified veterinarian, he said.
"It's a humane euthanization," Norman said.
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