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Congressmen aim bill at salmon-munching sea lions

The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. - Remember C404? a new bill before Congress doesn't mention the wily, salmon-swiping California sea lion by name. With his reputation, it doesn't need to.

But it may shorten his days.

Two Washington congressmen proposed the bill Thursday to allow wildlife managers to kill the more aggressive sea lions who prey on Columbia River salmon, just now heading upriver to spawn.

"Unfortunately, the news this year isn't any better than last; California sea lions are already setting their sights on this year's salmon run," said Democratic Rep. Brian Baird.

C404, named for the brand he was given for identification, shows up each year and, alone among his buddies, has gotten into the fish ladders the migrating salmon use to get over Bonneville Dam.

He thus stays well-fed, and his chutzpah has earned him a fan club of sorts that does not include fish officialdom or fishermen.

He has yet to show up this season. But it's early and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it is watching for him.

As of now there isn't much the corps can do.

The sea lions, protected by the 1972 , gather at the base of the dam to wait for and feed on the migrating salmon.

Wildlife officials have tried harassing the sea lions with large firecrackers and rubber bullets, but with little effect.

"After trying every trick in the book, this is the only option left to stop the sea lions," said Republican Rep. Doc Hastings.

The districts of both Baird and Hastings border the Columbia. Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington and Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon are co-sponsors.

Hastings said taxpayers pay millions of dollars a year to protect salmon while the sea lions gorge themselves on the fish.

The bill would create a temporary fast-track process for Oregon, Washington and the four Columbia River treaty tribes to get permits to kill a limited number of the sea lions when nonlethal harassment has failed.

In recent years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says, the sea lions have killed thousands of returning salmon, mostly at Bonneville Dam. The fish and the sea lions began entering the river in large numbers in the 1990s, and many sea lions return year after year.

About a dozen salmon and steelhead runs that enter the Columbia River are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The sea lions are protected but are not listed as threatened or endangered.

Oregon, Washington and Idaho applied last year for federal permission to kill some troublesome California sea lions. That approval process could take five years.

In 1995, NOAA Fisheries gave Washington state permission kill sea lions eating endangered steelhead swimming through Ballard Locks in Seattle, but before the executions, Sea World in Florida took the three worst offenders.

Wildlife officials say they can identify problem animals by brands placed on some of them or by distinctive markings or scars.

The spring chinook and the sea lions have just begun to enter the river.

By some estimates, the sea lions eat about 3 percent of the fish that arrive at the dam, where the salmon school up and are most vulnerable to the sea lions. Eventually, the salmon climb fish ladders to get around the dam.

 


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