I have sad news to share – the US Senate has just passed legislation that will allow nearly 1,000 sea lions to be killed each year in the Columbia River that borders Washington and Oregon states. The bill has already passed the House of Representatives, and is now on its way to becoming law.
We’ve been following this legislation closely because of its connection to the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas and the salmon they depend on. Seals and sea lions have long been viewed as competitors with people for salmon and other fish, and are often wrongly blamed for declining fish populations. While seals and sea lions do eat a small percentage of the salmon coming into the Columbia River Basin, they are not the root cause of the salmon decline. As sea lions die, human-built dams will continue to block salmon passage, pollutants continue to enter watersheds, and non-native fish will continue to eat millions of young salmon each year. These non-native fish have often been intentionally introduced into river systems simply for the pleasure of those who want to catch them for sport. Sadly, these ongoing human causes of salmon decline will be ignored as both salmon and orcas spiral dangerously close to extinction in the Pacific Northwest.
Even worse, this push to kill seals and sea lions in an attempt to ‘manage’ the ecosystem has been sold by some as a tool to help the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. The Washington State Southern Resident Recovery Task Force, a governor appointed group of stakeholders, even recommended supporting this bill despite opposition from WDC, the public, and many other groups involved in the Task Force process.
A Dangerous Precedent
At a time when the US is facing numerous attacks on environmental and conservation laws, we need to uphold and protect the important law that protects whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and other marine mammals – the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). This bill sets a terrible precedent for undermining the very foundation of the MMPA. Killing seals and sea lions won’t actually help salmon or orcas. Salmon have declined for a number of reasons, many of them complicated and interconnected – a loss of habitat, altering rivers with dams and barriers, impacts from poor hatchery and harvest management, and contamination in watersheds.
Shifting the blame
Blaming seals and sea lions shifts the focus away from human accountability for the actions that have led to declining salmon runs, and diverts limited resources and time away from tackling things that will help salmon recover, like restoring habitat, reducing pollution, and removing dams.
Additionally, the bill is poorly written and misinterprets information on declining salmon populations. It removes public oversight of this culling and increases by 10 times the number of sea lions that can be killed each year – from about 100 to almost 1,000 sea lions every year. The bill ignores the other factors that can cause salmon to die – natural mortality, poaching, and predation by other species. And in an unfortunate side effect, support at the federal level encourages ’vigilante’ killing of sea lions. A recent spate of shootings in Puget Sound has led to 12 sea lions deaths in the last couple of months.
We need to work together
The Southern Resident orcas don’t need fewer seals and sea lions to survive – they need more salmon. And we all (seals and sea lions included) would benefit from more salmon. We need to work together on restoring habitat, removing deadbeat dams, and addressing contamination in watersheds. Scapegoating sea lions simply because it’s the easiest thing to do is ineffective, wrong, and won’t address the reason for salmon declines.
With your support, WDC will continue to oppose this.