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NW Fishletter #388, Dec. 3, 2018
 Oregon Gets Go-Ahead To Kill Sea Lions At Willamette Falls
The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized lethal removal of California sea lions at Willamette Falls to benefit adult winter steelhead and spring Chinook populations returning to spawn. The Nov. 14 approval comes more than a year after the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife applied for permission to kill sea lions preying on migrating salmon and steelhead.
Oregon found that about 25 percent of adult steelhead were eaten by sea lions in 2017, when only about 1,000 adults returned to the Willamette River. State officials worried the run would go extinct, and estimated a nearly 90 percent probability of such without action. The sea lions were also eating 7 to 9 percent of returning spring Chinook, increasing their extinction risk by 10 percent to 15 percent.
"Before this decision, the state's hands were tied as far as limiting sea lion predation on the Willamette River," ODFW policy analyst Shaun Clements said in a news release. "We did put several years' effort into non-lethal deterrence, none of which worked."
The agency says about 12 sea lions are now at the falls, most of which have come every year for the past decade. According to NOAA Fisheries, Oregon is authorized to remove as many as 92 sea lions each year if they are documented preying on salmon or steelhead in the area of Willamette Falls for at least two days. Those sea lions can be captured and euthanized if no home for them can be found at a zoo or aquarium. The federal agency will decide in five years whether to renew its permission for lethal removal.
Oregon, Washington and tribes have similar permission to lethally remove sea lions at Bonneville Dam. Clements noted that this authorization does not help prevent the recent influx of much larger Steller sea lions, which are currently preying on sturgeon in the lower Willamette River.
NOAA Fisheries says it received almost 800 comments on Oregon's application, and a task force recommended authorization last month. California sea lions are not threatened or endangered, but are federally protected. The population of pinnipeds--which numbered fewer than 90,000 in 1975--grew to more than 300,000 by 2012, and is now estimated at 258,000 due to recent ocean conditions, NOAA says. The agency says 9,200 animals could be removed with no impact to the population's productivity.
"This is an action we believe is urgently necessary to protect these highly vulnerable fish populations," Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for protected resources in NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region, said in a news release. "It is a choice we wish we did not have to make, but at this point it is a necessary step to improve survival of these fish that we all want to recover. The science tells us that the sooner we act to reduce predation, the better we will protect the fish and the fewer sea lions that would have to be removed in the long run. -K.C. Mehaffey
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