Senate Passes Bill to Indiscriminately Kill Sea Lions in Pacific Northwest

Sad news to share this week – you may have seen our action alert last week asking you to speak up for sea lions and the landmark law that protects them, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).   Just a few short hours after we asked for your help, the Senate voted to pass the “Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act” (S. 3119), legislation that will amend the MMPA and allow nearly 1,000 sea lions to be killed in the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest each year.

California sea lion pup

We were following this legislation 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 being caught by sport fishers.  Sadly, 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, the push to use lethal removal to “manage” seals and sea lions, important and natural parts of the ecosystem, was linked to recovering orcas and salmon.  The Southern Resident Recovery Task Force 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 we’re facing numerous attacks on environmental and conservation laws, we need to uphold and protect the MMPA, not weaken this landmark law and the benefits it provides to marine mammals.  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.

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.  It’s an empty promise for an “easy answer” that we can bring salmon back by killing something else that eats them. 

Additionally, the bill is poorly written and misinterprets information on declining salmon populations.  It extends permit periods from one to five years, increases by 10x the number of sea lions that can be killed each year – from about 100 to almost 1000 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.

What you can do:

The Southern Residents don’t need fewer seals and sea lions in their ecosystem for the orcas 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 actually address the reason for salmon declines.

Unfortunately, similar legislation has already passed in the House of Representatives (H.R. 2083), so this bill is on its way to becoming law.  We encourage you to continue to reach out to your legislators to respectfully express your disappointment in this bill, and ask them to support funding for national programs that support salmon recovery through other measures, including the EPA’s Puget Sound Geographic Program, the National Estuary Program, and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund; and to support upholding the MMPA, Endangered Species Act, and other laws that protect orcas and salmon in the U.S.