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NW Fishletter #389 January 7, 2019

[3] New Law Streamlining Sea Lion Removal In Columbia Basin Passes

A bill that gives states and tribes more authority to kill sea lions that threaten fish runs in the Columbia Basin passed both houses of Congress in early December, and was signed into law by President Donald Trump.

The Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act, S. 3119, passed the U.S. Senate on Dec. 6, sailed through the House on Dec. 11 and became law on Dec. 18.

Sens. James Risch (R-Idaho) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) led the charge in the Senate, while Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) pushed for passage in the House. The votes included support of every House and Senate member from Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

The act is the culmination of a decade-long effort to resolve conflicts between the Endangered Species Act, which protects numerous salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers, and the Marine Mammals Protection Act, which protects sea lions even when preying on endangered salmon and steelhead.

The bill got wide support throughout the Pacific Northwest, where over the past two decades a growing population of California sea lions have ventured north and started colonizing the Columbia Basin. Most congregated at the mouth of the Columbia near Astoria, but increasing numbers made their way up the river to feast on returning adult salmonids which become easy prey at the base of Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls.

Many supporters of the legislation recalled the lessons at Ballard Locks, where no action was taken to discourage sea lions when they became problematic in the 1980s, leaving a steelhead population that may never recover after dwindling to just 70 fish in the mid-1990s.

Shaun Clements, a policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told NW Fishletter that the bill will usher in several changes compared with the agency's current authorization to euthanize sea lions under special permits from NOAA Fisheries.

Lethal removal will now be authorized for several American Indian tribes along with the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, who together co-manage fish runs in the Columbia Basin.

Currently, only the states are authorized to lethally remove California sea lions, and not Steller sea lions. Lethal removal is now permitted only near Bonneville Dam or since last month near Willamette Falls.

The bill, once permits are issued by NOAA Fisheries, will allow fish managers to kill both California and Steller sea lions throughout much of the lower Columbia River and its tributaries. Extra protections for Steller sea lions were recently lifted, Clements said, and the larger pinnipeds have become an increasing problem as their numbers grew over the last few years.

The new law also allows managers to kill sea lions that are negatively impacting not only Endangered Species Act-listed salmon or steelhead, but also ESA-listed smelt, and lamprey and sturgeon, which are species of concern.

Currently, Clements said, there's a long list of conditions that must be met before state agencies can capture and euthanize a sea lion. Each individual sea lion, before it can be removed, must be documented in the area for at least two days, and must be seen feeding on ESA-listed salmon or steelhead.

The new law puts a cap on the number of sea lions that can be killed--up to 10 percent of "annual potential biological removal level," which for California sea lions is 93 animals, Clements said.

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He added that only a couple hundred California sea lions currently populate the entire basin, so it's unlikely they'll reach that cap. "This bill did not in any way expand the number of sea lions that can be killed--just the conditions," Clements added.

Congress' action comes less than a month after Oregon received authorization to remove sea lions at Willamette Falls, where Oregon fish managers determined that one-quarter of returning steelhead were consumed by sea lions in 2017. The run was exceedingly low--only about 1,000 adult fish returned--and biologists estimated that without action, the run had a 90 percent chance of going extinct.

The news that the House had passed the Senate's bill was met with enthusiasm at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) meeting, where Council member Bill Booth reported the vote during the Dec. 11 meeting. "All that's left is a signature and the bill will be law," he told his fellow Council members. NWPCC members had lobbied for the bill's passage, traveling to Washington, D.C., to make their case to federal lawmakers.

After a listening to a presentation on salmon predators, Booth also commended Jaime Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, for supporting the legislation. "There's no way it could have been achieved without the help of CRITFC, and, of course, Oregon coming in to help really gave us a boost," Booth said.

Pinkham later released his own statement about the bill's passage. "I suspect many would wish the times were different and this legislation wasn't necessary," he said in a news release. "But the reality is that this legislation has become necessary."

He added, "I'm grateful Congress worked in a bipartisan manner to give us the local flexibility to protect the tribal treaty resources we share with others in the Columbia and Willamette rivers."

CRITFC spokesman Jeremy Fivecrows said under current law, tribes are not authorized to participate in removal efforts, and the new law will give them co-manager status. But the tribes have been working with states to try to discourage sea lions that position themselves at the base of Bonneville Dam and pick off fish as they head up the fish ladders.

Fivecrows said efforts at hazing are only successful while the hazing boats are present and making loud noises to convince sea lions to leave the area. "These are marine mammals. They're smart. They say, 'Here comes the hazing boat. We're going to lie low for a while.'" Once the boats leave, they resume their positions in the tailraces again, he said.

Congressmen who sponsored the legislation released statements in a news release when the Senate bill passed the House.

"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.

Schrader added, "Ratepayers and my constituents are paying hundreds of millions of dollars annually towards the largest mitigation program in the country for threatened and endangered salmon. These sea lions, whose population has become totally inconsistent with their historic range, have been undoing all of that work by feasting on the endangered species."

The federal legislation also won the support of several groups, including the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, which released its first round of recommendations in November. Among them: "Recommendation 13: Support authorization and other actions to more effectively manage pinniped predation of salmon in the Columbia River."

Other groups, too, applauded passage of the act.

"This legislation represents a necessary step to restoring balance to this ecosystem, and we are very excited to have the bill pass both chambers of Congress," Ted Venker, director of conservation for the sportfishing advocate Coastal Conservation Association said in a release.

Opposition to the bill came from animal rights groups.

"This bill changes the core protective nature of the Marine Mammal Protection Act by allowing for the indiscriminate killing of sea lions throughout the Columbia River and its tributaries," Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute said in a prepared statement. "Simply, S. 3119 finds sea lions who exhibit natural behaviors--eating salmon--guilty of a crime punishable by death."

Clements said he can understand the views of those opposed to this legislation, and noted that ODFW officials do not relish their task. "We just feel this is a necessary action we have to take to protect fish and prevent their extinction," he said, adding, "We're going to kill as few as possible."

Clements also noted that despite efforts to haze and relocate sea lions, the problem has only gotten worse. Sea lions are continuing to venture into new tributaries, he said, including the Clackamas and Sandy rivers in Oregon, along with new tributaries in Washington.

"Both of these rivers have some of our strongest salmon and steelhead runs," he said. Their new authority will enable them to prevent new colonies from becoming habituated in a new area before other sea lions follow suit--as they did at Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls.

Only about 7 percent of the sea lions venture upstream in the Columbia Basin, he said. "Our goal is to remove all of these animals and reset the system," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey

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NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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