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Sea lions vs. salmon: Annual clash resumes at Bonneville Dam

It happens every spring. Hungry sea lions follow endangered salmon runs up the Columbia River and feast on them at the bottom of the Bonneville Dam. If they’re caught, they can be killed by state workers.

campaign to stop the killing is becoming an annual tradition as well.

This year, for the second year running, international activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have parked an RV near the Bonneville Dam. They’re observing as state workers try to stop the hungry sea lions from eating fish at the base of the dam by pelting them with rubber bullets, underwater bombs, and flares.

If those measures don’t deter them, the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho are authorized to kill up to 92 sea lions a year.

“Control of any species rarely wins us friends here, particularly when we have to use lethal means," says Craig Bartlett, a spokesman with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Service. "But it is part of managing fish and wildlife in a state with such a fast-growing human population and so many threats to these species.”

Ashley Lenton, head of the Sea Shepherd’s Dam Guardian campaign, says the sea lions are being scapegoated.

“It’s the human beings that have killed off and are the reason for the decline in the native salmon,” Lenton says.   

State agencies say they’re working to protect the salmon from multiple angles. They’ve made improvements to the dam and hatchery programs and put more limits on commercial fishing of wild salmon. But they say they have to eliminate the threat of the sea lions as well. Since 2008, they’ve killed and relocated about 50 of them.

Sea Shepherd wants the killing to stop, and will keep its Dam Guardian campaign in place through the end of May.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.