WASHINGTON — Dozens of California sea lions who've turned part of the Columbia River into an all-you-can-eat salmon buffet appeared to win a reprieve from a congressional subcommittee chairman, but only a temporary one.
Federal, state and tribal fisheries managers argued at a hearing that the sea lions present a "significant" threat to the endangered salmon, so the predators will remain on death row, and they're likely to be killed next year.
The sea lions have been showing up in increasing numbers in the early spring, and they start dining on the salmon as they approach the Bonneville Dam's fish ladders on their journey upstream to spawn. About 100 sea lions have been spotted in recent years at the dam, which links Oregon and Washington state, and they've been observed eating more than 3,000 salmon and steelhead annually.
"California sea lions have turned the Columbia River into a salmon buffet," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., adding that one sea lion in particular, named C265, had gained nearly 500 pounds in two months eating salmon below the dam. "That is a lot of salmon."
Attempts to scare off the sea lions with rubber bullets, rubber arrows, underwater acoustic devices and noisemakers have failed.
"They are tough critters, and must be thinking, 'It may be a little unpleasant, but we get all the salmon we can eat,' " Baird told the House Natural Resources Committee's fisheries, wildlife and oceans subcommittee Thursday.
Baird and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., have introduced legislation that would speed up and streamline the process for securing federal permits to kill the sea lions. The bill could allow as many as 83 of the sea lions to be killed annually.
The sea lion-salmon smackdown pits two of the nation's pre-eminent environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, against each other.
The subcommittee's chairman, Democratic Delegate Madeleine Bordallo of Guam, said Thursday that she was reluctant to pass the bill and preferred to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Thirteen salmon runs on the Columbia and its tributaries are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the 1920s, there probably were fewer than several thousand California sea lions. Today, there are 200,000 to 300,000. Some scientists suggest that the sea lions reached their "optimal sustainable" population in 1997.
An amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1994, after a sea lion named Herschel and his buddies virtually eliminated a salmon run near Seattle, allows the killing of nuisance sea lions.