The bill streamlines the process for Washington, Idaho, Oregon and several Pacific Northwest Native American tribes to capture and euthanize potentially hundreds of sea lions found in the river east of Portland.

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WASHINGTON — Legislation that allows the lethal taking of sea lions that prey on at-risk fish populations on the Columbia River and select tributaries in Washington, Oregon and Idaho has been signed into law by President Donald Trump.

The bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., makes slight changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which lays out prohibitions for killing marine mammals, and institutes a permit process for the lethal taking of sea lions. Permit holders are legally allowed to kill sea lions that are part of a population and/or stock that is not classified as being depleted or at risk.

The signing of the bill by Trump was the culmination of years of work and advocacy to bring attention to the issue. Moses Lake resident Rick Graser, who spent 31 years as a fishing guide, was at the forefront of the fight for a fix and says he is relieved to see it come. But at the same time, he says, it could have come sooner.

“It was a lot of hard work and I’m just thrilled that this thing has gone through. I still make the stance that we are not to the point of killing all of the sea lions, but their numbers need to get back under control.”

The permits are good for up to five years, can be renewed and set the total number of seal lions to be killed annually under all issued permits at no more than 10 percent of the annual potential biological removal of the animals. The legislation requires the taking of the sea lions be humane and the “primary euthanasia be limited to chemical methods.”

Critics called the bill ill-conceived and say it won’t solve the problem of declining salmon, which also face other problems such as habitat loss and dams.

“This bill changes the core protective nature of the Marine Mammal Protection Act by allowing for the indiscriminate killing of sea lions throughout the Columbia River and its tributaries,” Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement.

For a sea lion to be eligible for lethal removal, the animal must have been previously captured and branded by a fishery, have been observed for at least five days on the river and must have been subjected to hazing techniques and been observed eating a salmon or steelhead.

“The way the fish runs have gone down and the damage these sea lions have done, it is going to take years to repair the runs to where they were before the sea lions showed up,” Graser said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been keeping statistics on sea-lion predation on salmon/steelhead directly below Bonneville Dam in Washington from January through May each year since 2002. California sea lions have been migrating north from California since the mid-1980s and their numbers have varied over the years, but during the 16-year span almost 4,000 fish have been consumed by the animals each year below the dam.

Estimates put the total number of wild salmon populations in the Upper Columbia River and Snake Rivers that are at risk of predation by sea lions below the dam at 32.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this story.

Richard Byrd can be reached via email at
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12-26-2018 at 11:02:25