A lawsuit filed yesterday by the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”) seeks a temporary restraining order to protect sea lions while this latest civil action is pending. Although the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act supposedly safeguards these intelligent animals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) last week reauthorized lethal take of sea lions documented eating salmon and steelhead after previous court rulings against the program.
The agency’s rationale for killing sea lions is based on the sea lions’ eating of endangered salmon. But that argument is no better now than it was when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a previous lethal take plan. According to the HSUS, greater threats to salmon come from dams that block their upriver migration, loss of quality spawning habitat, and competition with other fish.
NMFS claims that some of these impacts are more and some are less than the impacts from sea lion predation on salmon. Ironically, it acknowledges that there is “no magic bullet” that will address all impacts. According to the agency, however, “all sources have to be addressed and there is no requirement in the [Marine Mammal Protection Act] that requires us to eliminate the other sources of mortality before authorizing lethal removals” of sea lions.
That argument makes no sense, especially given the fact that NMFS admits that it can’t even tell for sure whether the sea lion killing done so far actually protected salmon populations. In responding to comments on the now-approved taking plan, NMFS cited a study hypothesizing “that the removal of 37 [sea lions] between 2008 and 2011 likely contributed to the decrease in level of salmonid consumption in 2011, but the data are not sufficiently complete to draw a firm conclusion at this time.”
Why kill sea lions when neither the effects on salmon of addressing admitted other threats nor the effects on salmon of shooting those intelligent marine mammals are known? It’s not the sea lions that should be targeted. It’s a premature, ill-conceived plan to turn them into easy scapegoats.