"The one that got away" is a bittersweet fisherman's story. The one that "got away with it" is the bitter end — if we fail to deal...

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“The one that got away” is a bittersweet fisherman’s story. The one that “got away with it” is the bitter end — if we fail to deal with an exploding California sea lion population that is threatening endangered Columbia River salmon.

Our tribes strongly support the recent recommendation by NOAA Fisheries to allow limited lethal removal of problem California sea lions. The recommendation takes a significant step toward reconciling two conservation laws — the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act — that are increasingly at odds with one another.

Thirty-six years of unencumbered federal protection of California sealions has produced profound success yet unanticipated consequences. The sea lions are at optimal sustainable population, according to NOAA estimates, but have gotten there at the direct expense of some endangered species.

Marine-mammal experts have warned that a particularly aggressive subpopulation of California sea lions will continue to exploit unnatural conditions — in this case, the fish ladder and its entrance at Bonneville Dam. They also warn that these behaviors will only get worse if left unmanaged.

We, as river people, remember a time when balance existed among all beings in a healthy and functioning ecosystem.

Dams have upset that balance. Tribal people were promised that while society reaped the benefits of dams, there would be a parallel acceptance of responsibility to mitigate and manage their impacts.

Survival, balance, integrity and dignity are cultural mandates for our tribes as we work to bring the wolf back to Idaho, eagles and other raptors to the Yakima Basin, and lamprey and freshwater mussels to the Columbia River.

To that end, our tribes insist that all impacts to threatened and endangered salmon runs, throughout their life cycle, be addressed in their recovery.

A comprehensive recovery plan includes hydropower and habitat improvements, hatchery reforms, predator management and the most closely regulated fishery in the world.

On the Columbia River, tribal, state and federal biologists have done everything allowable under current law to give the salmon a chance. However, between 2002 and 2007, there has been a 382-percent increase in salmon being eaten by sea lions.

A joint request by Oregon, Washington and Idaho to lethally remove sea lions led to a legally required convening of diverse interests — independent scientists, conservationists, nonprofit leaders, and tribal, state and federal officials — to weigh evidence and make recommendations.

They concluded that California sea lions are having a “significant negative impact” on endangered fish and, by an overwhelming majority, recommended approval of the states’ application and developed two lethal removal scenarios as part of their package.

According to NOAA Fisheries’ environmental assessment, the most-aggressive 2008 management option could take 48,000 salmon out of the jaws of sea lions and pass them safely above Bonneville Dam. A total of only 66,646 chinook made it safely above Bonneville during the 2007 run.

Northwest salmon lovers can be pardoned for any sense of déjà vu. Last decade’s tragedy at Ballard Locks began with similar circumstances. Regrettably in that case, myopic interests impeded desperately needed management, resulting in the functional extinction of the Lake Washington winter steelhead.

It’s a heart-wrenching scene at Bonneville Dam for those who are devoting their lives to building sustainable fish populations. River watchers have reported schools of ancient sturgeon huddling in shallow water, looking for refuge from marauding sea lions. Sea lions patrol the entrance to, and even inside, the Bonneville fish ladder, thereby eliminating any normative predator-prey relationship.

In our view, this situation puts the integrity of both species in jeopardy.

Quasi-domesticated sea lions may be acceptable to the Pier 39 tourists in San Francisco, but not on the Columbia River. There is no nobility in one species squatting in a fish ladder and eating another into extinction.

Our Creator gave us the responsibility to protect the balance among all creatures in the ecosystem. Traditionally, we accept responsibility for the survival and prosperity of the resources that surround us.

Failure to accept this responsibility threatens a tragic loss of a cultural resource that is the symbol of the Northwest.

Fidelia Andy is chairwoman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and vice chairwoman of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee.