8 min read

The Government Just Decided To Kill Hundreds Of Sea Lion Families

“It’s basically open season on sea lions now” 💔

The U.S. government just did something terrible for sea lions — it made it legal to kill nearly 1,000 of these animals every year, merely for trying to feed themselves and their families.

The impetus for this new law has to do with wild salmon. In recent years, salmon populations on the West Coast of the U.S. — particularly the Chinook salmon who live in the Columbia River Basin — have plummeted. The problem’s gotten so bad, Chinook salmon have been granted status as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Sea lions cuddled up together
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Officials and fishermen believe that killing sea lions, who naturally eat salmon, will help the fish survive. Yet animal welfare advocates say sea lions are being unfairly blamed — and that killing them isn’t going to solve anything.

“Predator control almost never works and it won’t work here, because the legislation fails to address the fundamental problems we have caused in salmon habitat,” Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), said in a statement.

Sea lions lying on dock together
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Instead of pointing their fingers at sea lions, Ryan Ososki, policy adviser for AWI, believes other factors are to blame, such as commercial fishing and the construction of dams.

“Is it any wonder that Chinook salmon are endangered when dams in the Columbia River Basin have permanently blocked 55 percent of their historic spawning habitat?” Ososki said in a statement. “Sea lions did not construct these dams, yet the president has signed into law a bill blaming them for the declining salmon population. This is bad legislation; it totally ignores the human-caused impacts to these endangered salmon.”

Sea lions looking out into the ocean
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What makes this issue even more contentious is that sea lions have been historically protected in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which says it’s illegal to hurt, harass or kill these animals. But the new legislation strips sea lions of their protections, allowing large numbers of them to be lethally removed.

In the past, state officials have been able to obtain permits to remove individual sea lions who were seen to be eating endangered salmon, but officials could only remove up to 92 sea lions each year. This new law increases the quota tenfold — from 92 to 920 — and it allows officials to kill any sea lion in the Columbia River Basin, whether they’re eating salmon or not.

Baby sea lions with adult sea lion
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And it’s not just state officials who are allowed to kill sea lions — tribal officials and contractors can now kill them, too.

“It’s basically open season on sea lions now, whether they’re preying on endangered fish or not,” Rose told The Dodo.

The new legislation requires that sea lions should be trapped and humanely euthanized using drugs — yet these killing methods could be viewed as expensive and burdensome, Rose points out.

Sea lions lying on dock
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“We worry very much that permit holders will sometimes shoot sea lions, which is not humane,” Rose said.

“Before, shooting a sea lion was a full-on violation of the MMPA and carried a hefty penalty — but now it would just be a violation of a permit (and they would still have to be caught doing it) and the penalty would be less.”

Sea lions lying on wooden dock
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If people do start shooting sea lions, it could cause a lot of unnecessary pain for the animals.

“A clean shot is difficult when shooting at something in the water,” Rose said. “So a wounded sea lion might suffer considerably before dying. “

Sea lions lying on wooden dock
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Animal welfare advocates also worry that the new law will encourage illegal killings of sea lions, which is already happening near Puget Sound in Washington. In the last few months, more than 13 dead sea lions have washed ashore with gunshot wounds and other human-caused injuries.

To Rose, the most upsetting part of this ordeal is the amendments to the MMPA, which has helped protect marine animals like sea lions for the last four decades.

Sea lion lying on wooden dock
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“This new provision ... is essentially a cull,” Rose said. “Now the MMPA, a wildlife protection law, allows a cull of one of the species it is meant to protect. This is a crack in its foundation and it will lead to other cracks — more requests for more amendments allowing more culls of marine mammals user groups blame for this or that — and quite possibly eventually a collapse of the statute altogether.”

To learn what you can do to help sea lions on the West Coast, visit AWI’s website. You can also help by making a donation to the organization.