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In Our View: Time to Act on Sea Lions

The Columbian

The tally doesn’t look good for steelhead and salmon on the Columbia River. Last year, sea lions devoured an estimated 9 percent of steelhead and 5 percent of spring chinook trying to make their way upstream past Bonneville Dam. Even more disconcerting, an estimated 24 percent of chinook disappeared between the mouth of the Columbia and the dam.

In other words, there is a battle going on in the Columbia, and the sea lions are winning. That points out the need for Congress to pass a bill sponsored by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground.

The Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Protection Act (H.R. 2083) would clear the way for tribal and government fish mangers to kill sea lions along the Columbia to help protect runs of native fish. “We’re not talking about wiping a species off the map,” Herrera Beutler said during a recent meeting with anglers and fishing guides in Kalama. “We’re talking about trying to protect a species. It’s a wacko imbalance.” The legislation would allow for the shooting of up to 100 sea lions per permit and would streamline the permitting process.

Protection of steelhead and salmon is not a partisan issue. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent trying to bolster species that have helped define the economy and the culture of the Northwest for millennia, and Herrera Beutler’s bill is co-sponsored by Oregon Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader. Notably, according to The (Longview) Daily News, the legislation has support from Carolyn Long and Dorothy Gasque, Democrats who are challenging Herrera Beutler in this year’s election.

Ideally, other members of Congress also will recognize the need for quick measures to ease the toll of sea lions upon Northwest fisheries. An identical bill has been introduced in the Senate (S. 1702) and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which includes Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

The need is urgent. Sea lions have made their way up the Columbia and Willamette rivers in recent years for an unencumbered feast, and attempts at hazing the animals have been ineffective. Oregon officials warn that if the banquet continues, there is a 90 percent chance at least one of the Willamette’s wild steelhead runs will go extinct. Only 512 steelhead crossed Willamette Falls last year, down from about 20,000 in 2000.

Sea lions represent a conservation success story. While the mammals’ population was about 30,000 in the 1960s, it has rebounded to 300,000 today thanks to various protections. But that resurgence has come at a cost; as many as 100 sea lions a day have congregated below Bonneville Dam for a meal of salmon and steelhead.

Officials don’t need to look far to see the danger of inaction. In the early 1990s, sea lions began gathering at Seattle’s Ballard Locks to eat. By the time Congress acted to ease restrictions on shooting the mammals, the Lake Washington stock of steelhead was nearly wiped out.

Herrera Beutler is confident her bill will come up for a vote in the House of Representatives in August. In April, she said: “The saying ‘it takes an act of Congress’ is such because it’s a laborious process. I try to explain to people it’s like farming; you plant the seed, you till the ground, oftentimes it takes a while before you get a real crop.”

We hope that Congress will cultivate Herrera Beutler’s bill before fish runs on the Columbia River wither and die.