Lawmaker's bill would protect salmon from California sea lions

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WASHINGTON — Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, argued in a heated House subcommittee hearing Thursday that stepping up lethal means against predatory California sea lions could protect the Northwest salmon populations.

The debate centered on a bill sponsored by Hastings that would allow Washington, Oregon and Idaho to grant permits to kill California sea lion populations that threaten wild salmon.

"On the one hand, if sea lions become numerous -- they have to be fed, they eat a lot fish. Then you could actually have salmon that's endangered, or other species of fish," said John Fleming, R-La., chairman on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs. "But on the other hand, you could also see as the levels of fish (increase), their food sources begin to diminish, then you could actually have unhealthy and starving animals."

Opponents of the bill argued that the Marine Mammal Protection Act already grants local authorities appropriate action to safeguard the local fish species, saying that there was no demonstrative threat that numbers of the salmon population were falling below what was acceptable by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Advocates of the bill, including Hastings, argued that the bill was a proactive measure that would build on previous methods he said have been proven effective.

The bill would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires states to determine individual, identifiable sea lions that are specifically threatening the salmon population before killing the sea lions. In its place, state agencies in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, along with certain tribes in the area, would be given the authority to grant permits to take lethal action against larger populations of sea lions.

The current provisions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act often are too stringent and don't provide enough flexibility to protect the salmon species, Hastings argued. He was supported by Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who testified at the hearing.

Estimates put the number of California sea lions in the Columbia River at somewhere between 500 and 1,000. Anywhere from 1 percent to 4 percent of the salmon population in areas being observed, including the Bonneville Dam area on the Columbia River, are eaten by sea lions each year, Norman said. But those numbers could be as high as 16 percent to 20 percent, taking into account the areas that weren't observed, Norman noted.