Rick Bowmer  /  AP file
A sea lion waits for migrating salmon inside the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam in Cascade Locks, Ore.
updated 10/17/2006 10:17:01 AM ET 2006-10-17T14:17:01

Fishery officials have tried just about everything to keep California sea lions from munching on threatened salmon migrating up the Columbia River — from yelling at them to setting off firecrackers. But nothing has worked.

This week, two Washington state congressmen announced at Bonneville Dam — where the pesky and portly pinnepeds have been doing most of their munching — that they are going to enlist Congress for help.

Sea lions are protected by federal law. But Republican Doc Hastings and Democrat Brian Baird said they will introduce a House bill that would let officials from the two states, as well as American Indians, quickly obtain permits to kill a limited number of sea lions that are going after salmon in the Columbia.

“These sea lions have bellied up to an endangered salmon buffet and they will be eating thousands and thousands of fish right here this spring if we don’t do something about it,” Hastings said.

Added Baird: “We've tried calling the sea lions names, we've tried throwing cherry bombs at them, we've tried shocking them. They've basically said there's a free salmon meal here.”

Sea lions multiply
They say numerous attempts to scare the sea lions off, including yelling at them, shocking them and exploding fireworks, have failed.

When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, there were about 50,000 California sea lions. Oregon officials say their numbers have grown to 300,000.

The Bonneville Dam has become a favorite dining site for the sea lions, which pick off salmon as they go up the dam's fish ladders.

The number of sea lions waiting at the dam for migrating fish during spring runs has risen from about 30 in 2002 to as many as 100, according to Oregon and Washington officials.

In 1994, Congress amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act to let states apply to the Commerce Department for authority to remove marine mammals under certain conditions.

Oregon and Washington expect to submit their application for that approval later this month, but it could take 18 months to three years, said Curt Melcher, assistant administrator of the fish division for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The bill proposed by Baird and Hastings could allow the states to kill some of the sea lions as early as next spring. The expedited process would be temporary — just three years.

Under the proposal, officials from those states and the Columbia River tribes would be able to apply for permits from the Secretary of Commerce to “lethally remove” up to 10 California sea lions over a 14-day period that are known to have “preyed upon salmon” and have resisted efforts to scare them off.

Yearly cap would be 80
The number of sea lions killed in a single year would not be allowed to exceed 1 percent of what’s known as the Potential Biological Removal level, or 80 California sea lions a year in this case.

Michael Garrity, associate director of American Rivers, an environmental group, objects to the bill, saying dams and the degradation of salmon species’ habitat is more to blame for their decline in numbers.

“It seems like whenever the federal government’s failures to restore these salmon become obvious, you often see relatively minor problems like sea lions scapegoated,” Garrity said.

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