Legislators debate sea lion euthanasia, MMPA amendments

By Charlie Booher

A California sea lion basks in the sun. ©Tewy

A Senate subcommittee is considering legislation that would allow a greater number of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) to be euthanized to protect endangered fish species.

H.R. 2083, also known as the “Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act,” would allow for increased lethal take of California sea lions through the current permitting process. Rules established in the 1972 Marine Mammals Protection Act allow state and tribal governments and other entities to obtain permits to euthanize certain individuals. Under the proposed amendments, no more than 10 percent of the “annual potential biological removal level” could be euthanized. This is estimated to be around 920 individuals or ten times as many as current regulations permit.

In the areas of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, measures have been taken to protect endangered salmonids and steelhead by removing California sea lions, which prey on the fish as they congregate near dams. Some lawmakers claim that the original MMPA does not give the fishery enough protection from the pinnipeds.

The Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard considered the legislation in an April 25 hearing titled “Enhancing the Marine Mammals Protect Act.” Chris Oliver, head of fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, testified in support of the amendments. Calling predated fish populations “a significant problem,” Oliver said the amendments would “improve [NOAA’s] ability to address those issues.”

Guy Norman, a Washington representative on the Northwest Power & Conservation Council, also testified in favor of the amendments. “Predation by sea lions is an immediate and growing problem that needs an immediate solution,” he said. “We simply need a more streamlined and effective process for the removal of those sea lions that move far inland to prey on salmon and steelhead.”

“A program that addresses the small portion of the male sea lion population that moves far upstream into the Columbia River and into tributaries” is necessary for the success of the fishery, Norman said.

Defenders of Wildlife argued that raising the quota was unnecessary. While the current law allows for the take of 92 individuals, senior attorney Jane Davenport noted, no more than 56 have ever been taken in a year. “These states have never come close to killing their allotted quota,” she said.

She pointed to a variety of other factors that affect fish populations, including dams, which are common along traditional spawning rivers.

The California sea lion population had been rising gradually since the MMPA passed in 1972, but it has declined in recent years from its peak of 306,000 individuals in 2012. Research suggests that rising ocean temperatures causing a lack of prey may be a factor in their reduced population.

In another proposed amendment to the MMPA, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, is seeking to protect the sale of ivory used in native Alaskan handicrafts and clothing. His “Allowing Alaska IVORY Act” (S.1965) would block states from banning “the importation, sale, offer for sale, transfer, trade, barter, possession or possession with the intent to sell, transfer, trade or barter of walrus ivory or whale bone produced under this title by an Indian, Aleut or Eskimo as an authentic native article of handicrafts and clothing.” The bill would also protect the sale of mammoth ivory products.

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Charlie Booher is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Charlie's articles.