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WA grapples with seals, sea lions preying on endangered salmon

ADDITION Culling Sea Lions
Don Ryan
In this April 24, 2008 file photo, a sea lion eats a salmon in the Columbia River near Bonneville Dam in North Bonneville, Wash. In 2020, federal authorities granted permission for Washington, Oregon, Idaho 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.

A new state report prepared for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends selective killing of seals and sea lions, to learn more about the impact they have on endangered salmon runs.

These experimental lethal removals would be the most effective way to move the science forward in a timely manner, according to a committee at the Washington State Academy of Sciences. Their report to the legislature came at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force.

Populations of seals and sea lions have ballooned since they gained federal protection in 1972. At the same time, salmon populations have dwindled, leaving some on the brink of extinction. These include Chinook salmon, the preferred prey of the endangered southern resident orcas.

It’s well documented that seals and sea lions can eat lots of these fish and might be impeding salmon recovery. In certain pinch points such as dams and locks, it appears obvious. But the new report from Washington’s Academy of Sciences says, in order to truly find out, "adaptive management" studies are needed.

“This might mean moving pinnipeds out of certain places. It might mean lethally removing them in other places,” said Daniel Schindler, a professor of marine biology at the University of Washington. He chaired the committee that wrote the report.

“The other option is to do nothing and keep watching. But that sit-and-watch type approach is much less likely to lead to new insights about the interaction between pinnipeds and salmon,” Schindler said.

He acknowledged that scientists, wildlife managers and the public have some difficult decisions ahead – and said his committee did not engage on issues of animal welfare which he recognized need to be addressed.

But he said limited lethal removals are happening now on the Columbia River. And tribes used to hunt seals and sea lions in Washington waters, to meet their nutritional and cultural needs.

So there is historical precedent for human interactions with pinnipeds in ways that we really haven't seen in the last 50 years,” Schindler said.

Several tribes want to revive a hunt on seals and sea lions, as a way to control the predation on salmon and resurrect some of the traditions that are central to tribal ways of life.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission is calling for active management, “to address the impact of pinnipeds, river by river, run by run,” Ed Johnston, the organization’s chairman, said in an emailed statement.

“Tribes have done a lot of work to restore and protect habitat, and to rebuild salmon populations. But we’re losing those benefits to predation,” he wrote.

WDFW wants to keep moving the science forward, to learn exactly how much fish these charismatic marine mammals eat and where. But getting approval for lethal removals in Puget Sound or anywhere beyond the Columbia River will likely be an uphill battle, said external affairs director Nate Pamplin.

He anticipates opponents of the idea to raise concerns about all the other factors in salmon recovery, like habitat and hatcheries.

“And that's a great point. Let's make progress on those,” he said. But he said the state now knows that seals and sea lions might be hampering other salmon recovery efforts.

“Because they're going to be eating the salmon smolts, or the adults that are returning, and thus really hindering our ability to ultimately recover salmon,” Pamplin said.  

Pamplin said moving forward with lethal removals or treaty-protected hunts won’t happen quickly. The state and tribes will need permits under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is a notoriously slow and difficult process.

One avenue that he said has never been done before would be a request to transfer authority for seal and sea lion populations to the state. Another would be to apply for a waiver under MMPA. But, he pointed out that that’s the process the Makah Tribe is still working through for their gray whale hunt. They submitted their first request in 2005.

“18 years and counting, two environmental impact statements, an administrative law judge hearing — and they still don't have a permit,” Pamplin said.

He said the agency needs to build their case by continuing to monitor the outcomes of lethal removals on the Columbia River, which started in 2018 after Congress passed an amendment to the MMPA. It’s possible another amendment could be the answer, to allow researchers to conduct and study targeted removals – or hunts.

In the meantime, Pamplin said they need to continue studying the distribution, abundance and diets of pinnipeds in Puget Sound and the watersheds that feed into it. The governor’s budget for the next biennium includes requests to the legislature for more than $1 million per year to fund those programs moving forward.

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.
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