New Law Allows Killing California Sea Lions That Are Threatening Salmon in Pacific Northwest

A pair of California sea lions sit on a dock in San Francisco on Nov. 6, 2005. (Credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

A pair of California sea lions sit on a dock in San Francisco on Nov. 6, 2005. (Credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Animal control in the western United States just got more extreme.

A new law allows people to kill sea lions that have been devouring the region’s endangered salmon and steelhead — as long as they first get a permit.

The law, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump last month, changes the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to lift protections on California sea lions in the Columbia River, the Willamette River and their tributaries.

Government authorities in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho already had authorization to kill a limited number of threatening sea lions, according to according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Many salmon and steelhead populations in the Northwest are threatened and endangered, and the last few years have been particularly hard as ocean conditions have turned and fewer salmon have returned to the rivers,” NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein told CNN.

“That leaves fewer fishing opportunities and fewer salmon to feed other predators such as sea lions and killer whales.”

But it’s not a free for all — the law specifies the mammals must be killed humanely and with a permit. It also says the policy must be suspended in five years if the salmon and steelhead populations no longer need extreme protection.

Killing the mammals might seem like a drastic step, but Oregon wildlife officials say attempts to scare off sea lions with pyrotechnics and rubber bullets only helped temporarily.

The migratory salmon and steelhead are protected by the Endangered Species Act, and the NOAA says fish populations cannot sustain themselves without government protections.

What’s more, the fish are vital to the West Coast’s ecosystems and economy.

“They help sustain the ecosystem by bringing nutrients back to rivers from the ocean, they provide food for many predator species, and they support the economy through commercial and recreational fishing,” Milstein said. “So the recovery of salmon and steelhead supports the ecosystem as well as communities in the region.”

In recent months at least eight sea lions have been fatally shot in and around Puget Sound in Washington. Experts suspect commercial and tribal fishermen who blame the sea lions for decreasing the salmon population.

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