A bill that allows tribes to lethally remove sea lions from sections of the Columbia River passed in the U.S. House on Tuesday. The bill is championed by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
“For the salmon and steelhead fighting to make it upstream, today’s vote in the U.S. House significantly improves their chances of survival,” Herrera Beutler said from the House floor Tuesday. “The passage of my bipartisan bill signals a return to a healthy, balanced Columbia River ecosystem by reining in the unnatural, overcrowded sea lion population that is indiscriminately decimating our fish runs.”
HR 2083, known as the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, amends Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to give the Secretary of Commerce the ability to authorize state and local tribes to manage sea lions, specifically California and Steller sea lions. Tribes can seek permits to kill sea lions predating on endangered salmon runs. Federal estimates show at least 20 percent of the Columbia River spring chinook run and 15 percent of the Willamette River steelhead run are being eaten by sea lions.
“We’re not anti-sea lion. We’re just for protecting a Pacific Northwest treasure: salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and other native fish species iconic to our region,” Herrera Beutler said. “My bill provides state and tribal managers with the tools they need to humanely manage the most problematic pinnipeds. Simply put, this measure cuts through the bureaucratic red tape, streamlines the permitting process, and allows states and tribes to rapidly respond to remove sea lions from areas they pose the most threat to salmon recovery.”
Permits issued to tribes are exempt from environmental review requirements outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 for five years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can suspend the issuance of permits to tribes in five years if lethal takes are no longer needed to protect fish runs from sea lion predation.
The bill has the support of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, the Wild Salmon Center, Edge Rods and Coastal Conservation Association, Yakama Nation and both Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife.
“This is a critical issue that cannot go another year without being addressed,” said Guido Rahr, president and CEO of the Wild Salmon Center. “This bill provides a thoughtful and practical approach to addressing sea lion predation in critical areas of the Columbia River. It also, for the first time, enables managers to respond before the number and habits of sea lions become an insurmountable problem for returning wild salmon and steelhead populations.”
Joe Stohr, acting director of WDFW, said the department appreciates the legislative efforts to work on such a complex issue. U.S. House National Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the bill corrects the problem and gives tribes a chance to prevent further economic impacts.
“The habitual Washington, D.C., knee-jerk defense of the status quo is harming endangered species instead of protecting them,” Bishop said. “The fact of the matter is that the existing regulations are leading to the decline in endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest, a key source of ecological vibrancy in the region.”
With the bill approved in the House, a companion bill is moving through the U.S. Senate. The senate version is sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho.