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Friday, October 14, 2011

Sound Science for Sea Lions and Salmon

The Obama Administration’s record on animal welfare so far has been mixed. On the plus side, the Agriculture and Interior Departments have made progress on important policy issues such as improving humane slaughter enforcement, tightening the rules banning double-decker trucks for shipping horses to slaughter, considering an endangered listing for captive chimpanzees, proposing a ban on the trade in large constrictor snakes, and, following up on an act of Congress, producing a rule to restrict the imports of dogs from foreign puppy mills. The demerits include the de-listing of wolves, which puts their fate in the hands of states with hostile wolf management plans, the continuation of large-scale round-ups and removal of wild horses on public lands, unabated predator control efforts by the Wildlife Services program, massive taxpayer hand-outs to the pork industry even during an economic recession, and the Administration’s support for the meat packing industry in a Supreme Court case seeking to overturn California’s downed animal law.

sea lion
A new scientific report concludes that sea lions are having
even less of an impact on salmon than previously believed.

The Commerce Department, too, has been on the wrong side of an issue by advocating for the killing of native California sea lions in the Columbia River. As it did with the wolf issue in the West, the Administration is bowing to the pressure of state political leaders—in this case, in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as commercial and recreational fishermen, who charge that sea lions must be killed to prevent them from eating salmon at the Bonneville Dam. In other words, they want to kill sea lions because this native marine mammal dares to eat a Lilliputian portion of the fish that some fishermen would rather kill themselves. Now some members of Congress have jumped on the anti-science, political bandwagon by pushing legislation to gut the Marine Mammal Protection Act and authorize even more widespread killing of these playful and inoffensive creatures.

But a new report issued this week by scientists appointed by the National Marine Fisheries Service should give pause to even the people most antagonistic to sea lions and compel them to see that their claims are wildly exaggerated. The scientific panel concluded that sea lions ate only slightly more than 1 percent of the spring salmon run this year. This number is down from 2010 when they ate a whopping 2 percent of the salmon run—a far cry from the 17 percent that the federal government has authorized fishermen to kill for years. 

The government’s misguided wildlife killing program was halted in November 2010 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with The HSUS that the agency couldn’t justify the killing of sea lions in light of the fact that their impact is dwarfed by comparison to the impacts from fishermen, dams and other sources of salmon mortality. The court questioned whether the government was acting “impartially and competently” in determining that sea lions are having a significant negative impact on salmon, while at the same time finding that fisherman and dams are not having a significant negative impact on the same populations.

The report issued this week by government scientists confirms everything sea lion advocates and the courts have been saying for years about the dramatic inconsistencies between the Administration’s tolerance for salmon mortality by fishermen but persecution of sea lions for a much more trifling impact. At the same time the federal officials are railing at sea lions for eating native salmon, federal tax dollars continue to be wasted on stocking the Columbia River with non-native bass and walleye and other sport fish that make easy pickings for recreational fishermen, but also kill up to 3 million young salmon each year. (That’s 1,200 times the roughly 2,500 adult salmon eaten by native sea lions each year.)

Rather than address the real problems facing salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest—fisheries, dams, competition with hatchery and non-native fish, and habitat destruction—the politicians have ignored sound scientific data, and seem willing to do almost anything to placate a small but vocal minority of fishermen no matter how irrational or what the costs for marine mammals. As long as fishermen are killing more than 8 times the number of fish as sea lions eat, the plan to kill sea lions in the Columbia River doesn’t even pass the straight-face test. Let’s hope the Obama Administration and Members of Congress will take this new scientific report as an opportunity to stop swimming upriver, and start addressing the real threats to salmon recovery.

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