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NW Fishletter #383 July 2, 2018

[3] House Passes Bill Allowing Agencies, Tribes To Kill Sea Lions

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 288-116 on June 26 to allow tribal and government agencies to kill California and Steller sea lions, if they are endangering salmon-restoration efforts on the Columbia River.

House Resolution 2083 had support from a wide range of groups representing fishing, salmon conservation and hydropower, along with Northwest tribes, governors and state fish agencies.

The bill would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow NOAA Fisheries to issue one-year permits to the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho; the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama and Cowlitz tribes; and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission to kill additional sea lions in the Columbia River and certain tributaries, as long as they are not part of a depleted population. Washington and Oregon are currently authorized to kill sea lions, but only at Bonneville Dam under strict guidelines.

House members debated the bill for an hour before it passed with the bipartisan support of 220 Republicans and 68 Democrats, following largely supportive testimony by Pacific Northwest lawmakers. A companion bill, S. 1702, has been introduced in the Senate, and on June 27, the House bill was received in the Senate, read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Supporters of the bill were elated by its passage and hopeful the Senate will also act.

"I just think it's fantastic. Everyone in the region, with the exception of some of the animal rights groups, has rallied around this," Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, told NW Fishletter.

Flores added that she was pleased how Northwest legislators succinctly described the situation, despite the emotion that comes with killing sea lions.

Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, added that with bipartisan support in the Senate from sponsor Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), he thinks the bill has a good chance of moving in the Senate.

"Also, there aren't good arguments against the bill. It makes too much sense," he told NW Fishletter. Corwin noted that the salmon and steelhead being eaten or maimed by sea lions are the adults, finally coming back to spawn. "With all the other efforts mostly focused on juveniles, these are the fish that have benefitted. It's important to get them back to spawn," he said.

PPC and CRITFC sent a joint letter on June 25 to both House and Senate leaders pushing for passage. Members of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council also traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the bills.

The most vocal opponent of the bill--the Humane Society of the United States--told NW Fishletter in an email that it has no statements regarding the legislation. Before its passage, the nonprofit group told other media outlets that H.R. 2083 is a distraction from the real problems facing salmon, such as dams, habitat loss, overfishing and climate change.

Those were the same arguments used by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, who testified against the bill on the House floor. He said that the threat from sea lions pales in comparison to the other dangers they face. "The killing of sea lions is not a silver bullet for salmon recovery," he said, noting that the bill does nothing to address any of the other causes of salmon decline.

Grijalva also accused Republican supporters of hypocrisy, pointing to the recent passage of H.R. 3144, "known in the fishing community as the Salmon Extinction Act," he said, which--if passed by the Senate--would return spring spill levels to those in the 2014 Biological Opinion. He listed several other bills and riders that he called the continuing "congressional war on salmon," and encouraged his colleagues to instead address the entire range of stressors that are threatening the fish.

Northwest representatives from both parties, however, offered counter-arguments, and cited support from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown--both Democrats, along with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican who sponsored the bill, said local fishing guides told her that between 70 and 100 percent of the salmon they catch show signs of barely escaping an encounter with a sea lion. "It's practically a miracle when a fish can make it upstream without getting caught in a sea lion's teeth," she said, adding, "Look, we're not anti-sea lion--oh my goodness no. We're just for protecting our native fish, a Pacific Northwest icon. And in order to do that, we need to be able to remove some of the most egregious offenders," she said.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat and cosponsor, displayed a photo of five half-eaten salmon and declared, "So this is what our cuddly sea lions do to our iconic salmon." Schrader warned that if something isn't done now, Willamette River steelhead may face the same demise as the decimated runs lost to inaction at Seattle's Ballard Locks in the 1980s.

California sea lions have recovered exponentially, from about 70,000 a few decades ago to about 300,000 today, he noted. Hazing and relocation have been ineffective.

Schrader said he agrees a comprehensive approach must be taken, and to that end, he said Bonneville Power Administration hydroelectric customers are contributing nearly $1 billion a year to help improve habitat, fish passage and hatcheries. "This is not a radical bill. It is a thoughtful and narrow approach brought to us by the fish and wildlife departments of the three states," he said.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said that historically, salmon that made it 100 miles up the Columbia River did not have to contend with sea lions, which have only recently discovered the easy prey at the Willamette River, Bonneville Dam and other Columbia River tributaries. "We're talking about a few hundred problem animals which then teach other animals where they can get a free lunch," he said. Without control, Willamette River steelhead have an 89-percent chance of extinction, he said.

DeFazio added his support for the bill comes after sponsors agreed to public comment and a National Environmental Policy Act review.

Rep Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) testified he is disappointed by inaccurate and emotional statements made by the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. "I've heard this legislation called 'The Slaughter Seals and Sea Lions Act,' and claims that it will authorize a massive increase in annual permits to kill sea lions and seals. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said, adding that the bill was carefully crafted with bipartisan input and support, and places strict limits on sea lion removal.

The bill got support from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which sent members to Washington, D.C. to lobby for its passage. The Council outlined the issue in a May 15 letter to Risch.

Bill Booth, a Council member from Idaho, said three Council members split up and teamed up with tribal representatives and arranged 25 meetings with House members, senators or staffers in two days. He said that, for the first time in the 11 years he's been working on this issue, he sees regionwide broad support for controlling sea lions. "It's right there on the front burner, and it really looks like things are moving," he said.

At the Council's June 12 meeting, Booth said he was encouraged, and predicted the measure would pass the House. "It's still tough sledding, and we're running against time constraints" for getting the bill through the Senate this congressional session. -K.C. Mehaffey

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