News

Cull of the Wild

First Nations urge 
sea lion hunt

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

To manage the population of salmon we must also manage the population of creatures that eat them.

That was the message conveyed to marine scientists by a group of First Nations elders at a special workshop in Bellingham last week. The workshop addressed an overabundance of seal and sea lions—an animal group called pinnipeds—in the North Pacific. The event is part of a fisheries plan and legislation to permit the cull or harvest of seals and sea lions in Washington and British Columbia waters. The two-day workshop was sponsored in part by British Columbia’s Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

“Federal legislation allowing lethal removal of more sea lions in the lower Columbia River is a good step toward reining in out-of-control populations that are hurting salmon and orca recovery efforts throughout the region,” Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, noted in a press release.

Under existing management, sea lions are captured at Bonneville Dam by state and federal employees and euthanized off-site. The new plan would also allow tribes to remove sea lions and expand the sites from which sea lions may be removed. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries developed the plan at the request of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Native American tribes.

Thirteen species of Columbia basin salmon and steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act. State and federal agencies, tribes and partner organizations have spent billions of dollars over the past few decades on various efforts to recover the populations, including habitat restoration and fish passage at dams, in addition to sea lion removals.

NOAA estimates that nearly 10,000 adult spring Chinook salmon a year, or more than 3 percent of returning adult fish, are consumed by sea lions.

“The vast majority of these animals remain in coastal and offshore waters, but several hundred have established themselves in upriver locations,” said Kessina Lee, Region 5 director with WDFW, when the plan was initially released in June. “Where salmon and steelhead numbers are low, any unmanaged increase in predation can cause serious problems.”

NOAA believes that approximately 25 to 35 percent of the fish consumed by sea lion are those listed under the ESA. In 2016, NOAA estimated removals at Bonneville Dam between 2008 and 2016 prevented the loss of 15,000 to 20,000 salmon and steelhead. The expanded program would allow native tribes,  for the first time, to kill sea lions that are threatening endangered salmon and steelhead runs to extinction. Culled animals could also serve as a potential food resource for tribes, said Thomas Sewid, president of Pacific Balance Marine Management Inc. Sewid’s company is a First Nations British Columbia group pushing for a license to sell pinniped products— from furs, to human and pet food, and medicinal needs from the Omega 3 fatty acids found in seal oil.

Treaty tribes in western Washington support the legislation of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler that would allow the lethal removal of up to 920 of the animals on the lower Columbia River each year. The bill has passed the House of Representatives. A companion bill is being considered by the Senate.

Sea lion populations on the West Coast have more than tripled to about 275,000 since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was created in 1972. Regional salmon managers are particularly concerned about impacts from sea lions and harbor seals on threatened Chinook salmon. Adult Chinook are the favorite food of southern resident killer whales, the endangered orcas that are the focus of a recovery task force in Washington.

“The Marine Mammal Protection Act was created with the best of intentions to protect seals and sea lions,” Loomis noted. “Back then they needed the help. Now, more than 40 years later, it’s a different story. Those good intentions and lack of management have created an imbalance that must be corrected.”

Sewid’s group estimates that of the 27 million Chinook smolts produced a year in the Salish Sea, the seals are consuming about 24 million of them. His numbers line up with an estimate in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences that found “changes in the numbers of seals since the 1970s were associated with a 74-percent decrease in the maximum sustainable yield in Chinook stocks.”

In the lower Puget Sound, the explosion of harbor seals is driving the decline of both Chinook salmon and resident orcas, according to studies in Whatcom and Skagit counties. A 2017 report by NOAA Fisheries and other agencies estimated the area’s harbor seal population has grown from 8,600 to 77,800 in the past 40 years.

“Increased consumption demand of growing marine mammal populations in the Northeast Pacific could be masking the success of coastwide salmon recovery efforts,” NOAA analysts admitted in their study. “

Long-term reductions in the salmon available for commercial and recreational fisheries may not reflect lower abundance of salmon, but rather a reallocation from human harvest to marine mammal consumption.”

The ongoing loss of salmon habitat in western Washington has led to Indian and non-Indian salmon fisheries being cut 80-90 percent in the past 30 years as managers work to reach spawning escapement goals, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The trend for marine mammals is just the opposite. Today they take more salmon in Puget Sound every year than Indian and non-Indian fisheries combined.

Marine scientists, who made up the majority of workshop attendees, suggest more studies are needed before drastic lethal reductions are taken in seal and sea lion populations.

Environmentalists and animal rights activists have also expressed concerns with the plan.

“We have long opposed this legislation on the basis that it does not account for human-caused threats to endangered salmon runs,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, in a statement. “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries agency lists ‘habitat loss from dam construction and urban development’ as a primary contributor to the decline in Chinook salmon in the region. This proposed legislation, however, says nothing about dams or development and places all the blame on natural predators.”

“Enough studies have been done,” Sewid said. “It’s now time to harvest or cull the seals and sea lions. If not, we are certain to see the extinction of many salmon runs throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“It was we Indians, after all, in our pinniped harvests that kept balance in our animal kingdom,” Sewid said.

“Reducing sea lion and seal populations in our region is a difficult, but necessary action that must be taken,” Loomis admitted. “Unless we control their numbers, seals and sea lions will continue to eat more salmon every year than any killer whales—or us—could ever hope for.”

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