It's Time to Give the Salmon Some Helpby Editorial Board
Yakima Herald-Republic, April 20, 2007
It's supposed to be part of the natural order of things: Sea lions eat salmon. Lots of salmon.
Unfortunately, the natural order gets skewed in the Columbia River when an overabundance of sea lions meets a run of salmon in the waters below Bonneville Dam. As the prized fish mill around prior to entering fish ladders, they're little more than a salmon buffet for the always-hungry mammals.
Well-intentioned, and obviously effective, efforts to protect the once-threatened sea lion population have led to a sharp increase in their numbers and a major menace to still-threatened salmon -- a classic case of unintended consequences.
Now it's time to reverse the order and start reducing the sea lion population, resorting to lethal means on a limited basis to bring it back to manageable levels.
Nonlethal methods are not working. Sea lions below Bonneville Dam have been blasted with rubber buckshot, chased by boats, harassed by firecrackers and rockets and subjected to noise from underwater speakers. None has deterred them from their favorite meal.
As reported earlier, prior to passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 that provided federal protection to the sea lions, California sea lions were rarely seen in the 140-mile stretch of river between the Pacific Ocean and Bonneville Dam, the first of the 19 hydroelectric dams on the mainstream of the Columbia and its largest tributary, the Snake River.
The number of California sea lions dwindled to fewer than 10,000 before Congress acted. Until 1972, Washington and Oregon paid bounties for sea lions killed in the Columbia, and a state-sanctioned hunter was also employed.
Now, with protection, an estimated 300,000 California sea lions live in the Pacific, chasing the food supply as far north as Puget Sound.
The situation now has officials in Washington, Oregon and Idaho asking Congress for permission to kill about 80 sea lions a year to protect the salmon they feast on. Under the circumstances, it is a reasonable request. Those are very expensive salmon the sea lions are gorging themselves with and the feast runs counter to extensive efforts to restore and enhance salmon runs.
Once, an estimated 16 million salmon returned annually to the Columbia and its tributaries. Now, 13 salmon and steelhead species are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Extensive private-sector, government and tribal efforts have led to a modest rebounding of the migrating salmon population, though it will ever approach what it once was.
The California sea lions eat an estimated 3,000 spring chinook each year right downstream from Bonneville. Since each returning female salmon carries 3,000 to 4,000 eggs, the loss can go far beyond a single fish.
Blame federal protection for the sea lion population explosion and man-made dams if you must for their easy salmon pickings. But given two out of three choices in a dam/salmon/sea lions trilogy, we'll opt for the first two. The dams are an economic necessity for many reasons and the salmon deserve a break and chance to rebound themselves.
Reduce the sea lion population with a return to controlled hunts until it is no longer a threat to salmon runs. In the natural order of things, the scales are now tipped way too much in favor of the sea lions.
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