US House approves bill that would allow the killing of sea lions in the Columbia River

SEATTLE -- The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that supports the lethal removal of sea lions in the Columbia River. Representatives on both sides of the aisle said something needed to be done to protect native fish, including steelhead and salmon.

The debate on how to get rid of California and Steller sea lion species in the Columbia River has been going on for more than a decade.

But the House on Tuesday made a last-resort effort to reduce the sea lion numbers in the river.

“Look, we're not anti-sea lion. Oh my goodness no. We're just for protecting our native fish. A Pacific Northwest icon,” said Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.

A bipartisan effort led by Herrera Beutler and Oregon Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader led to the passage of this bill that amends section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, allowing state, fish and wildlife agencies and tribes to humanely kill a certain number of sea lions in the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

“It’s important to note that nothing in this bill will hurt sea lion populations. They are thriving, thanks the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A population that hovers in the 300,000 range,” Schrader said.

Officials say 45% of spring Chinook salmon disappear between the estuary and the Bonneville Dam. Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife said Willamette River steelhead are facing a 90% chance of extinction if nothing is done. Officials said traditional, non-lethal ways of removing the sea lions wasn’t working.

“We’ve been doing non-lethal hazing for over 15 years,” said Schrader. ”That’s been totally ineffective. You transport these sea lions to the coast from the middle of Oregon and they’re back in five days at Willamette Falls.”

Some lawmakers hope this method will not only increase fish populations in the river, but also help orca populations in the Puget Sound.

“There are 75 (southern) resident orcas left -- less than when they were put on the Endangered Species list,” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash. “These sea lions are not even indigenous to the Columbia River; they’ve only been here for only three decades. They came here and found lunch.”

Schrader’s Democratic colleagues did not support the bill, however.

“I cannot support this bill. It does not address the root cause of salmon population decline and instead unfairly scapegoats sea lions,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Grijalva, who's the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the root causes of dwindling salmon populations are due to over-fishing, hatcheries, hydropower dams and human overpopulation.

“The killing of sea lions is not a silver bullet for salmon recovery. This bill is a five-cent solution to a 10-dollar problem,” said Grijalva.

The Senate has not yet passed a bill. A companion bill, sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and James Risch, R-Idaho, is pending in the Senate.

According to Herrera Beutler's office, state fish and wildlife departments will ultimately choose the method to humanely euthanize the sea lions.