New law makes it easier to kill sea lions

SEATTLE -- President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that makes it easier to kill sea lions in the Northwest.

Versions of the bipartisan bill were co-sponsored by Washington lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.

The barking of sea lions has only gotten louder the past 50 years as protected populations multiplied under the 1970 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The new law, called the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act, weakens that act to allow killing nearly 1,000 sea lions each year.

"Look, we're not anti-sea lion, we're just for protecting our native fish," Herrera Beutler had said to her colleagues in Congress.

The bipartisan effort prioritizes protecting endangered fish like Chinook salmon, which people, sea lions and endangered southern resident orca all love to eat.

Politicians like Gov. Jay Inslee believe pinnipeds like sea lions are taking too much of the share.

"I believe that we have to look at a way to manage the pinniped population, controversial as that is," he said in an interview earlier this month. "Frankly, the explosive growth of the pinnipeds have created a competitive pressure, which is adding to the starvation of the orcas."

But others see sea lions as a scapegoat.

"It's bad legislation, it's not the answer to the problem," Christopher Joyce said.

As part of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Joyce has seen firsthand the competitive fight over fish, holding stakeouts this fall when at least a dozen dead sea lions washed up on shore, shot.

Sea lions have long been an issue for local fishermen, but he says it's not the sea lions' fault.

"Humans are causing this by setting up these nets everywhere," he said. "Basically, the sea lions have nowhere else to go. They don't need to spend their energy foraging in the wild like they should, all around the sea, so they concentrate on certain areas."

Those areas include dams on the Columbia River.

The new law issues permits to Washington, Oregon, Idaho and several tribes to kill up to 920 sea lions each year, 10 times what was previously allowed.

There are strict limitations to these permits. Permit holders would first have to capture, brand and monitor a problem sea lion caught eating endangered fish for at least five days, and try legal hazing techniques to deter them before killing them using "chemical methods."

The permits are good for up to five years and the federal government will need to study whether the program proves effective.

While support for culling sea lions has grown as their population grows and salmon and orca decline, voices within salmon and orca conservation communities doubt loosening protections will have a significant impact on endangered species.