No good deed goes un­pun­ished. In this case, the good deed put Cal­i­for­nia sea li­ons un­der the pro­tec­tion of the fed­eral Marine Mam­mal Pro­tec­tion Act in 1972. It worked won­ders: The pop­u­la­tion of these jumbo pin­nipeds sky­rock­eted to nearly 300,000 strong along our West Coast to­day.

The pun­ish­ment for that well-in­ten­tioned act is now be­ing doled out to salmon and steel­head with take-no-pris­on­ers fe­roc­ity, par­tic­u­larly in the mighty Columbia River and its trib­u­taries, home to a great many wild, ge­net­i­cally unique runs of the iconic fish.

There’s no deny­ing that hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties have al­tered the habitat with great dams, such as the Bon­neville, and in other ways, have cre­ated un­nat­u­ral bot­tle­necks forc­ing salmon and steel­head to queue up at times in great num­bers to en­ter the fish lad­ders they must as­cend to con­tinue up­river and spawn.

What is an im­ped­i­ment for salmon has be­come an all-you-can-eat snack bar for hun­gry sea li­ons. Fish­er­men for years wit­ness­ing the slaugh­ter term it the “Bon­neville buf­fet.”

So two changes wrought by hu­man in­ter­ven­tion now re­quire a third in­ter­ven­tion.

Changes al­ready in force are the tremen­dous surge in sea lion pop­u­la­tions and the cre­ation of choke points where salmon and steel­head are easy pickin’s as they con­gre­gate to head up fish lad­ders.

Now it is time — far past time, many would ar­gue — for that third in­ter­ven­tion: eu­th­a­niz­ing (i.e. killing) some sea li­ons.

The prob­lem isn’t new but is rapidly grow­ing worse. As one in­di­ca­tor of how se­ri­ous it is, con­sider that sci­en­tists es­ti­mate one of ev­ery four en­dan­gered spring-run Columbia chi­nook salmon is eaten by a sea lion be­fore it can reach its spawn­ing grounds. Or the fact that bi­ol­o­gists pre­dict the al­most-cer­tain ex­tinc­tion of win­ter steel­head in the Wil­lamette River (a Columbia trib­u­tary near Port­land) if the sea lion prob­lem isn’t dealt with quickly.

Hope for these and other wild salmon stocks may de­pend upon the U.S. Se­nate tak­ing ac­tion, pos­i­tively and quickly, to pass its ver­sion of U.S. House Res­o­lu­tion 2083 (the En­dan­gered Salmon and Fish­eries Pre­da­tion Pro­tec­tion Act), which passed with broad bi­par­ti­san sup­port in June. This leg­is­la­tion would al­low up to 930 sea li­ons to be shot per year and stream­line the process to al­low agents to shoot them.

Some en­vi­ron­men­tal groups of course have cried bloody mur­der. How­ever, I hope senators bear in mind that this is up to 930 out of a pop­u­la­tion of 300,000. The groups also point out that laws do al­low for (very limited) eu­th­a­niza­tion now. To that I would point out that cur­rent fed­eral reg­u­la­tions for any pin­niped to be put to death in­volve a nearly pro­hib­i­tive process, with these re­quire­ments:

An an­i­mal sus­pected of gorg­ing on salmon must be cap­tured.

It then must be branded or tagged.

The sea lion must be re­leased and observed for five con­sec­u­tive days to prove it’s eat­ing salmon.

It may (or may not) then be ap­proved for ex­ter­mi­na­tion by fed­eral of­fi­cials.

If ap­proved, it must again be cap­tured to be killed by lethal in­jec­tion.

Hun­gry sea li­ons must love those fed­eral reg­u­la­tions as much as salmon must curse them.

Un­for­tu­nately, leg­is­la­tion to deal with the grow­ing sea lion prob­lem won’t help an­glers in Cal­i­for­nia, where — as Jim Hen­dricks’ fea­ture on page 84 chron­i­cles — sea li­ons in­creas­ingly steal hooked fish and even phys­i­cally en­dan­ger some an­glers.

But leg­is­la­tion can save en­dan­gered salmon runs (and per­haps help oth­ers avoid be­com­ing en­dan­gered). Let us hope that our senators, vot­ing on the se­nate ver­sion of HR 2083 (hope­fully soon), will be in­flu­enced less by the emo­tional re­sponse from pho­tos of these doe-eyed, os­ten­si­bly cud­dly eat­ing ma­chines and more by the logic and rea­son that can put some brakes on the salmon smorgasbord.


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