WASHINGTON — A House subcommittee began deliberating Tuesday whether to speed up the killing of an exploding population of California sea lions that's preying on thousands of endangered salmon in the Columbia River.
Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that residents in the Pacific Northwest had spent billions to save their salmon only to see aggressive sea lions kill them. Last year alone, he said, 6,000 salmon were killed.
Saying the current law is "inadequate and cumbersome" in granting permits, Hastings has introduced a bill that would give the states of Washington and Oregon, along with Indian tribes in the region, a quicker way to get federal permission to euthanize the sea lions.
At the bill's first hearing, Hastings told the House Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Ocean and Insular Affairs that his bill would provide "a commonsense path forward" while protecting the public's heavy investment in salmon.
The Humane Society of the United States opposes the plan, warning that it could result in "vigilante action" against the sea lions.
"We believe that this proposed legislation is not only unnecessary but potentially dangerous," said Sharon Young, the marine issues field director at the Humane Society.
Guy Norman, the regional administrator for the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Vancouver, said the male sea lions' behavior started changing significantly nine years ago, when they began swimming 145 miles up the Columbia River in the winter and spring to prey on salmon as they tried to pass through fish ladders at the Bonneville Dam, about 50 miles east of Portland, Ore.
He told the panel that resource managers must have the ability to deal with sea lions "in a timely and reasonable manner" to reduce the salmon's mortality rate.
Young told the subcommittee that the bill lacked clarity.
"As written, any sea lion seen with a fish in its mouth could be shot by an individual with permission to kill," she said.
The subcommittee listened to the testimony but didn't vote Tuesday
Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, a co-sponsor of the bill, predicted that the legislation will proceed to the House floor, with Hastings at the full committee's helm.
"We've done so much to try to protect these fish. ... My view has always been that we have plenty of sea lions," Dicks said.
California sea lions have increased from a few thousand in the 1920s to more than 238,000 today, said Jim Lecky, the director of the Office of Protected Resources in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service.
During winter and spring months, he said, more than 1,000 California sea lions can be found near the mouth of the Columbia River.
Officials have tried nonlethal means — everything from yelling to firecrackers — to scare away the sea lions, with little success. If the legislation is approved, about 85 sea lions could be killed each year, under a formula that would change the number each year based on population estimates.
Robin Brown, the program leader for marine mammal research and management with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told lawmakers that the sea lions have shown themselves to be "quick to learn and highly adaptable" to their new surroundings, adding that the animals aren't native to the Columbia River.
"The argument that California sea lions have always occurred in the Columbia River and are only exhibiting the historic use of traditional foraging areas is a false statement," Brown said.
The fight has been tied up in the courts for years. The states used traps and euthanasia to kill 30 sea lions from 2008 to 2010 after receiving special permission from the federal government.
An appellate court in San Francisco ruled that states and the National Marine Fisheries Service had to stop the killings, which prompted Hastings to introduce his bill earlier this year.
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