Ted Walsey’s shotgun cracked like thunder, lobbing a cracker shell into the Columbia River and sending the big brown sea lion beneath the surface in search of friendlier waters. But the boat and the noises emanating from it wasn’t far behind.
Just as crews from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission have for a number of years, Walsey, Bobby Begay and Reggie Sargeant patrolled the river just below Bonneville Dam on Wednesday afternoon, harassing but not killing sea lions with cracker shotgun shells and so-called seal bombs — both essentially big firecrackers, the former shot from a shotgun, the latter dropped by hand — downstream away from the fish ladders where endangered migratory salmon congregate.
For the salmon, it’s the first chokepoint on a long journey to their spawning grounds. For hungry sea lions, it’s like a quick trip to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries division estimates about 45 percent of spring chinook salmon are lost between the mouth of the Columbia and Bonneville Dam, with sea lions being primarily responsible.
Sea lions, as well as whales, dolphins, and porpoises, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. For about the last 15 years, states and tribes have been able to kill some sea lions, but they have to go through a long and laborious permitting process to do so on an animal-by-animal basis.
The program has faced criticism from animal rights groups.
By pushing the predators downstream, tribal officials hope to give migrating fish some cover and better their odds of successfully spawning in tributaries throughout the Columbia Basin, but Doug Hatch, senior fishery scientist for the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said more is needed. “We’re losing the battle. We’re losing it, for sure. We need more lethal removal of sea lions. The hazing is not the answer,” he said.
For that reason, the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is supporting legislation by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., titled the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act. The bill would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to make it easier for state and tribal wildlife managers to kill sea lions that predate salmon and steelhead and other fish in the Columbia River and its tributaries. Under the bill, a permit to kill no more than 100 sea lions would be effective for one year, but would include renewal eligibility.
“The limited number of removal we’re talking about would have zero impact on the population (of sea lions),” Hatch said. “We don’t have the management tools, but we need the management tools and that’s where the legislation comes in.”
Herrera Beutler and state and tribal wildlife officials visited the Bonneville Dam Wednesday to watch from shore as the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s boat chased sea lions around the waters at base of the dam and discussed the legislation.
Herrera Beutler’s bill is the sixth attempt in at least as many congressional sessions that has sought to address sea lion depredation in the Columbia River Basin.
“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,” Herrera Beutler said.
She went on to say that part of her job is to make new federal lawmakers familiar with the issue. She and Schrader have told congressional leaders that the bill is a must-pass.
“I think there’s just more of a willingness now,” she said. “Our goal is to get a number of our Washington and Oregon Republicans and Democrats both in the House and in the Senate on this bill.”
Sea lions are just one of a multitude of issues, including dams, climate change and habitat destruction, pressing salmon to the brink in the Columbia Basin. But Herrera Beutler argues controlling sea lions could improve their odds.
“There isn’t one magic bullet, there is no one answer,” Herrera Beutler said. “The reality is there’s another piece of this that needs to be addressed: giant sea lions eating endangered salmon.”