NW governors urge Congress to act on sea lion predation bill

Sea lions and harbor seals, pictured at Astoria's East End Mooring Basin, make a major dent in Columbia River salmon runs.

COLUMBIA RIVER — Legislation that will allow the lethal removal of more California sea lions, as well as steller sea lions, from the Columbia River passed two hurdles in the past two weeks and now is headed to the president’s desk for signature.

The Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Act amends the existing Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 by giving more flexibility to remove sea lions that prey upon threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River. The bill also lists white sturgeon as a protected species.

It was approved by the full U.S. Senate Friday, Dec. 7, which sent it to the U.S. House of Representatives for their final stamp of approval. The House had initially passed its version of the bill (H.R. 2083) in July. This week, the House signed the bill “by suspension” Dec. 11, which means it passed without a full House vote, and sent it on to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The bipartisan Senate legislation was proposed by Sens. Jim Risch (R-ID) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), while Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) was one of the sponsors of the House bill that passed earlier this year.

“I suspect many would wish the times were different and this legislation wasn’t necessary. But the reality is that this legislation has become necessary,” said Jaime Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Pinkham commended Idaho Council members Bill Booth (Idaho) and Guy Norman (Washington), along with Council staff, for their work with the Senate on getting the legislation passed. Pinkham also had lobbied Congress in favor of the bill.

The growing number of sea lions and the high percentage of salmonids they are eating is having an impact on fish listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. All have been the target of expensive fish and wildlife programs. The Bonneville Power Administration spends about $300 million a year for salmonid recovery projects and sea lions are putting recovery of these species at risk.

“Today’s passage of our bill to control sea lions was a hard-fought victory — it’s a personal victory for each of us who treasure our Northwest salmon runs and want to see them preserved for generations to come,” Herrera Beutler said in a press release. “I’m grateful for the partnership of my colleague Kurt Schrader, and for Sens. Risch and Cantwell for shepherding this through the Senate. I’m so pleased we are able to give Northwest fish managers this critical tool to help save our salmon and steelhead runs.”

In boat surveys done by CRITFC between 2012 and 2016, observations showed that the number of sea lions in the Columbia River had doubled each of the years and recent estimates are that 35,000 to 100,000 adult salmon are taken by sea lions each year, according to Doug Hatch of CRITFC, who spoke Tuesday, Dec. 11, to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council at its meeting in Portland.

According to CRITFC, scat samples from sea lions show that 10 percent to 30 percent of their diet is comprised of salmon in coastal waters and in the Columbia River estuary and that the percentage rises as the animals travel upriver.

An end of year 2017 pinniped report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published in March 2018 said that 5,384 salmonids were eaten by sea lions in Bonneville Dam’s tailwater in 2017 before they could migrate up over the dam. That’s 4.7 percent of the entire runs of spring Chinook and summer/winter steelhead that passed the dam between Jan. 10 and June 2, 2017, which is the period the Corps monitored the number of pinnipeds and how many and what kinds of fish they consumed, according to the report.

Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife are currently authorized by NOAA Fisheries’ to lethally remove a limited number of California sea lions at the dam under a Marine Mammal Protection Act Section 120 permit.

In addition, the Corps, along with the states of Oregon and Washington, and CRITFC, have used a variety of deterrents or hazing to dissuade pinnipeds from becoming habituated to Bonneville Dam during the spring chinook run, but that has had a very limited impact on the pinniped population at the dam, according to the Corps report.

Hatch said that CRITFC will likely shift from hazing to lethal removal of the sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

ODFW recently was given a MMPA Sec. 120 permit to remove up to 99 California sea lions at Willamette Falls as a way to reduce the decimation by the animals of wild Willamette River winter steelhead and Chinook runs. That permitting process took more than a year and this new legislation promises to streamline the process.

A summary of the Senate bill (3119) says it authorizes NOAA “ to issue one-year permits allowing Washington, Oregon, Idaho, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to kill sea lions in a portion of the Columbia River and certain tributaries in order to protect fish from sea lion predation. Permits may be issued to kill sea lions only if the sea lions are part of a population that is not depleted.”

The permits allow the lethal taking of as many as 930 sea lions each year for five years or 10 percent of the annual potential biological removal level. The permits do not have to go through environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 for five years, but the bill instructs NOAA to “study the effectiveness of the permits on the recovery of endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead stocks,” further saying that NOAA can suspend the permits if, after five years, lethal removal is no longer necessary to protect fish from sea lion predation.

Lethal taking of sea lions will only be permitted from river mile 112, just downstream of Bonneville Dam, to McNary Dam on the mainstem Columbia River and its tributaries in Oregon and Washington, including the Willamette River.

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