A bill sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that would give tribes the right to lethally remove sea lions from the Columbia River is moving forward.
The bill — a companion to a nearly identical piece of legislation championed by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, that passed in the House last month — would allow tribes to seek permits to kill California and Steller sea lions that are predating on endangered salmon runs. It was approved by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday.
“Pacific salmon are central to our culture, our livelihoods, and our economy in the Pacific Northwest,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Taxpayers throughout Washington, Idaho, and Oregon have made significant investments in Pacific salmon restoration, and we must continue to support science-based management methods to ensure future generations have access to wild Pacific Northwest salmon.”
Estimates show at least 15 percent of the Willamette River steelhead run and 20 percent of the Columbia River spring chinook run are lost to sea lions.
The bill has bipartisan support, as well as the backing of the governors of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife, the Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
“Congressional action is critical to reducing the numbers of sea lions that prey on salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Bruce Botka in a press release. “We welcome the Senate’s progress and look forward to final passage of legislation that will enable the Northwest states and our tribal partners to better protect endangered fish.”
Support also comes from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the sportfishing industry and the National Congress of American Indians.
“Recently, sea lions have learned to swim over 100 miles up the Columbia River to various choke points where salmon and other species must pass,” said Jacqueline Pata, NCAI executive director, in a letter to Congress. “At these choke points, sea lions gorge on salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon. Evidence suggests this is learned behavior by a limited number of animals. Despite their small numbers, these sea lions can have devastating effects.”
Despite widespread support from lawmakers and Northwest tribes, some groups argue the bill is flawed.
The Animal Welfare Institute, for example, argues that the bill implies killing sea lions will save endangered salmon “when the greatest threat facing the salmon is human-caused degradation of their spawning habitat,” according to a press release.
“The American public overwhelmingly supports strong protections for the marine mammals that call U.S. waters home,” said AWI’s marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose in a statement. “Changing the core nature of the law to allow killing of sea lions for the crime of being sea lions — for taking advantage of dams and structures we put in the salmon’s way, making it easier for predators to catch them — is politically expedient but biologically indefensible.”
The bill will now move to the Senate floor for consideration.