US allows killing sea lions eating at-risk Northwest salmon

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FILE - In this April 24, 2008, file photo, a sea lion eats a salmon in the Columbia River near Bonneville Dam in North Bonneville, Wash. Federal authorities on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, granted permission for Washington state, Oregon and several Native American tribes to begin killing hundreds of salmon-hungry sea lions in the Columbia River and its tributaries over the next five years. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

SEATTLE – U.S. authorities on Friday gave wildlife managers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho permission to start killing hundreds of sea lions in the Columbia River basin in hopes of helping struggling salmon and steelhead trout.

The bulky marine mammals long ago figured out that they could feast on the migrating fish where they bottleneck at dams or where they head up tributaries to spawn.

“These are places where the fish are really vulnerable,” said Shaun Clements, senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We have to manage this so the fish can get through to spawn.”

The new permit allows the states and several Native American tribes to kill 540 California sea lions and 176 Steller sea lions over the next five years along a 180-mile (290-kilometer) stretch of the Columbia, from Portland to the McNary Dam upriver, as well as in several tributaries. It's the first time they have been allowed to kill the much larger Steller sea lions.

The sea lions, whose populations generally are healthy, have posed a long-running conundrum for wildlife officials, pitting mammals protected under federal law against protected — and valuable — fish runs. Complicating matters is that Columbia River salmon are a key food source for the Pacific Northwest's endangered population of orcas, which scientists say are at risk of extinction if they don't get more sustenance.

Over the last few decades, authorities have tried all kinds of less-lethal methods to deter the sea lions, including traps, rubber bullets and explosives, to no avail. They would return days after being relocated hundreds of miles away.

The Port of Astoria in Oregon even tried a fake, motorized orca made of fiberglass in a futile effort to keep them off its docks.

Authorities began killing some California sea lions at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River about 13 years ago, under restrictions that required them to first document each targeted animal in the area five times, observe it eating salmon and wait for it to enter a trap. Some 238 have been killed there.