The federal government is giving hunters the go-ahead to kill as many as 840 sea lions along the Columbia River.
The decision is part of a 2018 rule change to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and will open sea lion hunting along 200 miles of the Columbia and its tributaries, between the Bonneville and McNary dams, the Seattle Times reports. This is hoped to help the endangered salmon and steelhead that swim in the river, a source of food for Steller’s and California sea lions.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 has historically protected sea lions from killing, capture, and harassment. This marks the first time that Steller’s sea lions will be targeted by order of a federal mandate.
Unsurprisingly, the measure has been met with pushback from animal advocates and those who don’t want sea lion carcasses littering the banks of the Columbia. Around 22,000 comments were logged during the public review period for the rule change, with less than 200 of those comments in support of the program.
The program was submitted for approval by state and tribal fisheries managers in June 2019. A task force appointed to review the program gave it their full approval in May, including input from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
According tot he Seattle Times, Kessina Lee, regional director for Southwest Washington for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife voted to approve the hunting program, which she says presents, “a wicked conservation problem.”
Land managers have long tried non-lethal methods of deterring the sea lions from overfeeding on vulnerable fish populations. Some are less effective than others.
“For years, fish managers have tried nonlethal methods to haze and eliminate sea lions in the Columbia: Fire crackers and seal bombs, chasing them with boats, rubber bullets, screaming rockets, pingers, blasting orca whale calls, buckshot — and even long-haul relocation of salmon-munching sea lions didn’t work. They swam right back, as far as 100 miles in three days to keep chowing down,” the Seattle Times reports. “The new program considerably ups the ante.”
Hunters are prohibited from using firearms to hunt the sea lions. Rather, they can trap or dart the animals using tranquilizers before removing from the from the river to kill the animals.
“In a perfect world, in an unaltered world, this wasn’t a problem, because historically there were 16 million salmon in the Columbia River,” Doug Hatch, a senior fisheries scientist at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, told the Atlantic.
The program may bring some short-term relief to the fish, allowing them a more peaceful breeding season or two. After that, the sea lions are expected to return. And if not sea lions, something else.
“You can’t kill your way out of this problem,” said Sharon Young, senior strategist for marine wildlife for the Humane Society of the U.S.
Young believes other predators will move in to take the place of the sea lions if those animals are removed.
“It is not going to make any difference, and you will have killed animals for nothing,”Young said. “We tend to knee-jerk turn to some lethal solution to a conflict with any predator. But it doesn’t work without wiping out the population.”
Sea lions were once vulnerable and dwindling, too. The Marine Mammal Protection Act helped restore their numbers. Now they’re being written out of it.
See some of the tactics land managers take to move sea lions off the Columbia River in the video below.
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