A bill making its way through the U.S. Senate would allow the states and tribal interests to remove problem sea lions in the Columbia River, including by lethal force, to reduce predation on endangered salmon and steelhead.
However, the timeline for the passage of this legislation is growing very short.
SB 3119 is a companion bill for legislation already passed in the House of Representatives — HR 2083. There are only minor differences between the two versions of the bill.
Named the Endangered Salmon Prevention Act, the bill would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), to authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to issue permits allowing Washington, Oregon, Idaho, the Nez Perce Tribe, the tribes of the Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakima nations, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, and the Columbia Inter-tribal Fish Commission to kill sea lions in a portion of the Columbia River and certain tributaries in order to protect fish from sea lion predation.
The permits will only be issued if the sea lions are a part of a population that isn’t already depleted. The permits themselves are exempt from environmental review requirements for five years.
The bill was introduced by Sen. James E Risch, (R-Idaho). It is backed by the governors of all three states and a number of Northwest senators including Washington’s Maria Cantwell.
The bill was passed out of committee last week and will be addressed by the full senate soon, but there is a time constraint. If the bill is not passed before Congress adjourns for the year, its future is uncertain.
SB 3119 represents the best effort to date to amend the MMPA since its inception to allow stronger management of problem sea lions. It specifically targets animals that take up positions at pinch-points where salmon are forced to concentrate and are easy prey for the pinnipeds.
The California sea lion population has exploded in recent years, from 30,000 in 1972 when the MMPA was enacted, to more than 300,000 today.
To say that fishermen, tribes, and conservationists are excited about the possibility is an understatement. Many of them see the problem as one of the biggest threats to the recovery of salmon and steelhead within the Columbia River basin.
Guido Rahr, the president and CEO of the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, spoke in favor of the bill during a recent press conference in Vancouver held by Cantwell to press for passage of the legislation.
“At Bonneville Dam we now have over 150 California sea lions gathering,” Rahr said. “Forty-three percent of our spring Chinook this year were intercepted by sea lions.”
He added that the runs could not sustain that kind of predation, and pressed for swift passage of the bill.
Cantwell is a strong supporter of the bill, and she addressed the problems these animals are causing at the press conference.
“If this predation continues, our efforts to recover salmon and steelhead will become even more compromised,” she said.
The bill will now be considered by the full senate. If it is passed the differences in the Senate and House versions of the bill would then be addressed and reconciled.
However, the clock is ticking.