Death penalty for salmon-gorging sea lions

Three unlucky sea lions have been chemically euthanized by Washington state officials after being caught feasting on salmon at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.

During migration season in April and May, throngs of salmon and steelhead wait patiently beneath the Bonneville Dam to climb fish ladders to get upriver. Sea lions have figured this out, and packs of them feast on the helpless fish before they can fulfill their instinct to spawn upriver.

Two of the pinnipeds were caught and killed last week at the dam, and a third was captured and euthanized on Monday. Since 2008, 28 sea lions have been killed in the name of preserving the salmon population. Another 10 were captured and shipped off to zoos.

Federal authorization allows sea lions to be targeted for death only under certain specific conditions: The sea lions must be “individually identifiable,” have been seen eating salmon on five separate days, and have not responded to non-lethal hazing like fireworks and explosives.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that approximately 100 sea lions gobble up about 3,000 chinook salmon and steelhead each year at the Bonneville Dam. The Bonneville Dam is about 140 miles inland from the mouth of the Columbia River.

Last month, the Humane Society of the United States filed suit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to change the policy toward killing sea lions. The society argues the government has never proven the sea lions kill a significant number of salmon.

Sharon Young, Humane Society marine issues field director, told California Watch:

“There is just no justification for killing the sea lions. It’s just a red herring. It looks like something easy to solve, but they should really be addressing the bigger issues, like non-native fish.”

In response to the suit, a judge ruled that only 30 sea lions may be killed this year, instead of the 92 previously approved for 2012.

California officials were “perplexed” by the killings, especially in a year where record salmon numbers are expected. California Department of Fish and Game spokesman Andrew Hughan told California Watch:

“We know salmon is a huge part of the Oregon economy, but is eliminating a couple of sea lions really going to make a difference?”