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Orcas and Salmon Need Smart Solutions

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chinook salmon underwater, southern resident killer whales, sea lion on beach

We are closer than ever before to removing four outdated, salmon-killing dams.

Thanks to a recent court ruling and enormous support for dam removal in the first round of a public review process for dam operations in the Columbia River Basin, we are closer than ever before to removing four outdated, salmon-killing dams on the Lower Snake River in the Columbia-Snake River Basin.  This river system used to be the largest producer of Chinook salmon on the West Coast, and is still a vital source of these salmon for the Southern Residents.  Salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest declined for decades, largely as a result of dams blocking their passage upstream and are now a shadow of their former abundance. However, some legislators in the Northwest refuse to let these dams go, and are now introducing harmful and dangerous legislation that ignores the real reasons salmon runs in the Columbia Basin are endangered.  These elected officials are looking for any other source of blame for the decline of salmon – including targeting sea lions.

Impacts from predation pale in comparison to the real threats.  Sea lions are being held up as scapegoats and now are being marked for death by legislation based on poor science, and faulty management that won’t do anything to help salmon recovery.  The so-called “Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act” would allow large-scale killing of sea lions and seals, while distracting from meaningful actions that would truly help endangered salmon – and orcas—but are not being undertaken.

Here are the facts:

  • This bill would allow up to one thousand (that’s 1,000!) sea lions to be killed for eating any fish – salmon or not, and endangered or not.  Just being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the Columbia River system could be a death sentence for a sea lion.
  • Human harvest quotas are significantly higher than the documented percentage of salmon runs taken by sea lions.  The bill makes unsubstantiated claims that sea lions are eating close to a quarter of the fish in the runs, but there is no science behind that wild accusation. For example, in 2014, the government allowed fisheries to take up to 12% of endangered salmon populations; California sea lion predation that year was documented at 1.6% of the salmon run of several hundred thousand fish (including both endangered and non-listed salmon).
  • This bill removes the public review process, allowing the agencies to hide their actions from the public, and sets no specific goal for salmon recovery.
  • The bill allows sea lions to be shot in the river. This will encourage illegal and inhumane killing of sea lions seen in the river, whether or not they are eating salmon.
  • Sea lions are native to the Columbia River area, and historical records, including from Lewis and Clark, show they have been swimming upriver to forage for hundreds of years or more.
  • This is a distraction from the real challenges facing Columbia River salmon and will do nothing to help their recovery.
  • To recover salmon in the Columbia River Basin, we need to focus on what’s really killing them, and what will actually help them survive in the long run: removing outdated and unnecessary dams, restoring habitat, and addressing impacts from hatcheries and invasive species.  We need to focus on recovering the ecosystem, to provide more salmon for the Southern Resident orcas, and all the other species that depend on healthy wild salmon runs.