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Sea Lions: Shoot to Kill?
by Doug Olander
sea lion
Courtesy NOAA Photo Library
Cuddly sea dogs or salmon-killing machines?

Sea lions: cuddly dog-like marine mammals with big sad eyes.

Sea lions: efficient salmon-killing machines that threaten wild stocks.

Those are two ends of the spectrum in an ongoing battle in the Pacific Northwest centered around these large, abundant pinnipeds.

That battle got a bit hotter this week, according to a report in the Bellingham Herald, after Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) spoke in a U.S. House subcommittee in favor of his bill that would allow Washington, Oregon and Idaho to issue permits to kill California sea lion populations that are deemed a threat to salmon.

While I’m not crazy about the idea of rubbing out sea lions, I tend to come down on the side of some state fishery managers and many fishermen who say sea lion herds need culling.

The main reason is that our own environmental tampering has left salmon and steelhead very vulnerable to sea lion predation. That’s because the fish queue up outside dams and fish ladders. Thus dams, particularly across the mighty Columbia River, give sea lions an unnatural advantage — and a salmon smorgasbord they’d never have had otherwise.

Sea lion populations seem to have visibly mushroomed in the Northwest. Some have opined that the declining numbers of a major natural predator, white sharks, also plays a role, here.

A House bill sponsored by Hastings passed last year, but never made it through the Senate, so the congressman is trying again.

Some of the more moderate sea lion supporters have accepted non-lethal strategies such as relocating them far, far away. But such means have generally not worked (identifiable individual sea lions have, after being dropped off along the California coast, shown up back in Washington waters in short order — where the pickin’s are way easier no doubt).

Noting that the good Doc (Hastings) worried in testimony about the possibility of sea lions munching endangered wild stocks, I recalled that an earlier Administration, choosing to ignore its own scientists’ advice, provided big-agriculture interests in northern California more water for fields, depriving the Klamath River of much flow. Lo and behold, endangered wild Klamath stocks were decimated without enough water that year in which to spawn. (The awful year-class also became a factor in decisions in subsequent years to close much of the coast to salmon fishing.) I don’t recall if Hastings expressed concern about wild salmon stocks back then.

Sea lions are a pretty easy target. If I sound less than enthusiastic about killing 'em, well, yeah, let’s just say I’m not going to volunteer to be the trigger man. No worries there, as plenty of volunteers would be ready to answer that call of duty, I’m sure. (That includes charter skippers who have a constant problem with the big sea dogs stealing their customers’ hooked fish.)

But when all is said and done, thinning sea lion herds by lethal means in areas where they are gorging on wild salmon and steelhead, and where there is little or no natural predation to thin their ranks, is probably justified.