Does Congress Need to Intervene?
by Editorial Board
The Daily Astorian, February 7, 2011
The Columbia River sea lion controversy cannot keep dragging on
The current situation with regard to sturgeon, salmon and sea lions is ridiculous. Congressional action may be the only recourse.
It continues to do no favors to wildlife conservation or Columbia River fisheries to leave marine-mammal management to the contradictory whims of animal-rights groups, agencies, judges and others.
Last month, NOAA Fisheries announced that it wouldn't continue appealing a federal appellate court decision that hobbled the agency's effort to allow Oregon and Washington to begin a modest program of sea-lion population control on the Lower Columbia below Bonneville Dam. The underlying position being pushed by the Humane Society of the United States - the primary opponent of lethal, targeted control of specific sea lions - is that humans are the problem, not sea lions.
This particular case pertains to sea lion predation on endangered salmon. But the overarching dilemma is how we can have sustainable fisheries of any kind while simultaneously giving marine mammals a permanent open season on everything that swims in the Columbia. This includes sturgeon, which are now in serious decline, with sharply curtailed fishing seasons.
The federal judges acknowledged that Congress has already given NOAA Fisheries instructions that it can give endangered salmon first priority over sea lions, which are safeguarded under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But based on the extremely limited first-hand observations of how many salmon are killed by sea lions immediately below Bonneville, the court wants an explanation of how the agency can at the same time continue to permit fishing seasons that result in death for between 5.5 and 17 percent of endangered salmon.
We know much more about how human fishermen impact salmon and sturgeon than we do about the impacts of marine mammals, pikeminnows, mergansers, terns and other predators. Although nets and hook-and-line fishing definitely kill some endangered salmon, the vast majority of predation by sea lions is invisible to us. And unlike humans, sea lions make no effort to avoid killing rare endangered salmon in favor of hatchery fish, nor do they avoid killing sturgeon breed stock.
Nobody, including fishermen, wants to go back to the days of shooting every creature that competes with us for salmon. Fishermen and their communities have a tremendous understanding and respect for the natural world and are strong allies for native fish and wildlife. We want all the environmental pieces to fit together and we want more salmon for everyone. Getting to this result is a complex formula that has more to do with fostering better habitat and ocean conditions than with anything else.
But unless or until genuine progress can be made in restoring consistently excellent habitat, we must maintain a careful program of limiting the amount of damage inflicted by sea lions.
Congress needs to modify the law to give wildlife managers the explicit power to cull the sea lion herd before it drives salmon, sturgeon and fishing seasons into extinction.
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