Federal authorities grant ODFW permission to kill sea lions near Willamette Falls

(AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. –Federal authorities granted Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife permission to remove up to 93 sea lions a year on the lower Willamette River.

ODFW released information on the announcement Thursday.

According to the release, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) approved ODFW’s application to lethally remove the California sea lions that are present at Willamette Falls in order to help save winter steelhead and spring Chinook salmon from extinction.

Sea lions are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, but ODFW applied for authorization to remove the California sea lions at the falls in October 2017 after their analyses showed that the sea lions had killed 25 percent of the steelhead run in 2017 and that there was an almost 90 percent probability that one of the upper Willamette steelhead runs would go extinct.

There is a provision in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows for a limited number of sea lions to be killed if they are having a negative impact on a protected fish species.

“This is good news for the native runs of salmon and steelhead in the Willamette River,” said Dr. Shaun Clements, ODFW policy analyst. “Before this decision, the state’s hands were tied as far as limiting sea lion predation on the Willamette River. We did put several years’ effort into non-lethal deterrence, none of which worked. The unfortunate reality is that, if we want to prevent extinction of the steelhead and Chinook, we will have to lethally remove sea lions at this location.”

ODFW is still concerned about the recent influx of the much larger steller sea lions in the Willamette basin and their impact on the white sturgeon population. The provision allowing the state to lethally remove California sea lions does not apply to the steller sea lion.

California sea lions in the U.S. are not listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The most recent population estimate counted 296,750 animals in the U.S. in 2016. ODFW is approved to remove up to 1 percent of the population’s “potential biological removal” level, which equates to a maximum of 93 sea lions a year.

According to ODFW, there are between 50 and 100 animals present at Willamette Falls at some point each year.

“Removal of these sub-adult and adult males will have no impact on viability of the sea lion population but will greatly improve the outlook for threatened upper Willamette winter steelhead runs,” said ODFW’s Marine Mammal Program Lead Dr. Shea Steingass.

With the federal authorization, ODFW plans to move forward with trapping and killing sea lions on the Willamette River.

The animals that are lethally removed must be observed between Willamette Falls and the mouth of the Clackamas River for two days, or must be seen eating salmonids. Sea lions captured on the Willamette by ODFW biologists will be transported to a secure facility and humanely euthanized by veterinary staff. Staff will also perform a necropsy and collect samples to determine the age, health, and diet of the animal to better understand ecology and behavior of these animals.

ODFW says it will continue to monitor sea lions at Willamette Falls and report its findings to NMFS, which will reassess its decision in five years.

Conservation groups have not been supportive of the method. They would like ODFW to focus on the root causes of declines of fish populations.

"What’s not unprecedented, is sea lions eating fish. What is unprecedented is how few fish we have returning," he said. "You have to ask yourself why are there so few fish returning to the Willamette, and how can we bring back more, in a sustainable fashion, and what does the fish in the Willamette tell us about the river?"

Sherwood says development, dams and fish passages and water quality needs to be addressed.

"The fish have been telling us for sometime that this has been coming," Mark Sherwood, executive director of Native Fish Society based in Oregon City. "Fish are an indicator of the health of a system that sustains all of us. The message we’re getting is that, [the river] is really unhealthy and if those root causes are not addressed, we’re going to see more and more issues."

Bob Rees, longtime fisherman and executive director of the Association of NW Steelheaders, says there is no question the sea lions are impacting fish population. He was on the task force that recommended ODFW remove and kill sea lions.

"We are still stronghold for wild salmon, but quickly phasing out of that, as our population grows and our climate changes," Rees said. "Once we lose the opportunity to keep these fish at a stable level, they will be gone forever."

Rees says local, state and federal authorities must continue working on long-term solutions, and agrees with Sherwood, they must address root causes in fish population decline.

Rees says fishing brings hundreds of millions of dollars to the state's economy each year.

"The goal is to recover and preserve fish," Rees said. "I think it’s really critical that we paid attention at this crisis issue at hand but overall look at the import other factors that are taking place and the decline of these species."

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