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Sea lions in Columbia River
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New bill makes it easier to kill sea lions, but can it save local orcas?


President Trump is expected to sign a bill that will make it easier for state and tribal officials to kill sea lions across the Pacific Northwest. But can it help the region’s struggling orca population?

RELATED: Is state’s orca task force focusing on the wrong solutions?

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera-Beutler supported the bi-partisan measure and claims it will help endangered salmon, which include Chinook salmon. They are the primary food source for Southern Resident Killer Whales.

“Right now, if you’ve been down to the mouth of the Columbia or up the Columbia River, you have seen hundreds and hundreds of sea lions feasting on these endangered salmon,” she told KIRO Radio.

As sea lions devour these salmon, the food supply for the already-scarce local orca population plummets.

“They’re driving these fish to extinction,” said Herrera-Beutler.

Can this actually save the orcas?

Tom Nelson of 710 ESPN’s The Outdoor Line fishing show has spoken in the past about the direct threat posed to local orcas by sea lions.

“The pinnipeds are eating our Killer Whales out of house and home,” he told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson in August 2018. He estimated that in total, sea lions consume twice the prey orcas do, and six times the combined take of tribal, non-tribal, and sport fishing of salmon.

Other experts in the field agree as well, with support for the bill including a handful of fish and wildlife scientists who say the ecosystem is out of balance. The several thousand sea lions in the Columbia River aren’t native to the region, having swum up north from California.

Other supporters include Oregon, Washington, and Idaho’s governors, fishing groups, and tribes. The bill will allow officials to euthanize the most ravenous, aggressive sea lions.

More specifically, it would allow the lethal removal of sea lions that swim more than 100 miles upriver from the Pacific Ocean. Of the several thousand currently residing in the river, approximately 200 to 300 fall under that requirement.

That responsibility will be permitted only for state and tribal leaders, not individuals.

Expanding on a previous law

Already on the books is an amendment to the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, that legalized certain measures similar to this new bill.

“In 1994, there was an amendment that allowed the lethal taking of individually identifiable pinnipeds having a significant negative impact on the decline and recovery of salmon,” science writer Kate Gammon told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross on Seattle’s Morning News earlier this month.

Since 2008, around 200 sea lions have been lethally removed from the Puget Sound area.

Many credit that amendment to a sea lion not-so-lovingly dubbed Herschel and his gang of 10 compatriots, that swam up to Shilshole Bay from California in 1985. Herschel’s gang decimated the local ecosystem at the time, camping directly between the migration of 4,000 steelhead trout and the safety of the fish ladder.

RELATED: Sea lion deaths have deep roots in Seattle history

Estimates from the time claim that Herschel was consuming a trout every six minutes, with just one out of every two that passed through his gang’s area successfully making it out alive.

This new measure would enact a more streamlined process for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to capture and euthanize seals and sea lions, expanding beyond the scope of the 1994 amendment, that was related more to the lethal removal of individual pinnipeds.

The bill has already passed through both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and will next cross the President’s desk.

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