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Editorial: Sea lions expose conflicts in environmental laws

Capital Press

It must have been quite a sight. As U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader tells the story in his latest newsletter, he and representatives of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife were at Willamette Falls, where sea lions were decimating the salmon and steelhead, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We witnessed a sea lion taking a bite out of a salmon before members of the Grand Ronde tribe who were fishing at the falls could reel it back in,” the congressman wrote. “The depredation was stunning to see.”

The sea lions are amazing predators, totally outmatching the fisheries and wildlife managers, who had already tried to evict them from the falls. They had scooped up 10 of the offending critters and transported them to new stomping grounds along the Oregon Coast, where they wouldn’t be eating protected fish.

Within a few days, though, the sea lions were back at Willamette Falls. The pinnipeds had swum up the coast to the Columbia River and upstream to the Willamette River all the way to the falls. It was a trek of a couple hundred miles.

The problem is that sea lions are also protected under federal law. The Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids anyone, including wildlife managers, from “taking” a sea lion, whale, dolphin, sea otter or polar bear without a permit.

The law, which Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed in 1972, was aimed at preventing incidental take and harassment of the marine mammals.

In the Willamette Falls case, the salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Congress — and Nixon, before he was run out of office — approved that law to protect local populations of fish, plants and animals. Note that it doesn’t protect species so much as local populations.

At Willamette Falls, wildlife managers have a legal standoff: Protected sea lions are eating protected fish.

All of which would be mildly interesting to farmers in the Willamette Valley, except for one thing. Though populations of hatchery-reared fish are healthy, fisheries managers have been working overtime to rebuild the populations of native run fish in the river system. They outdid themselves recently with a plan to spend $200 million to $300 million to build a concrete tower in Detroit Lake to regulate the water temperature for the fish.

While that tower is under construction, irrigation water to 8 percent of the valley’s farmland would be either cut off or reduced for at least two years.

Here the managers want to take drastic, and expensive, measures on behalf of protected the native run fish and protected sea lions are killing them.

What to do.

ODFW last year applied to the National Marine Fisheries Service to kill the sea lions before they wipe out the salmon and steelhead. That agency, operating at the speed of government, is expected to make a decision by the end of this year.

In the meantime, Schrader, a Democrat, and Republican Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse of Washington state and Rep. Don Young of Alaska have introduced legislation to update the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Called the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, the bill would extend to states and tribes the authority to kill sea lions that prey on endangered salmon and steelhead. Sea lions have also been making a banquet of protected fish in the Columbia River.

It’s a good first step toward getting a handle on this problem. And it might also be a step toward revisiting the Nixon-era environmental laws that conflict with one another and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year to protect local populations of fish, plants and wildlife.

If everything is protected, then nothing is protected.