Steller sea lion

Steller sea lion.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife began the difficult task of removing Steller sea lions from the Columbia River last fall, and is set to resume operations to capture and kill those that venture up the river to feed on salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.

Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission members got an update on the Columbia removal program at its Jan. 29 meeting.

"We know that a sea lion not present is eating fewer fish than a sea lion that is present," Kessina Lee, WDFW southwest regional director told commissioners.

Last August, the National Marine Fisheries Service approved a new permit for three states and four tribes in the Northwest to capture and euthanize both California and Steller sea lions throughout the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers, allowing the lethal removal of up to 540 California and 176 Steller sea lions over five years.

Lee said that under a previous permit with much more stringent requirements, a total of 215 California sea lions were captured and euthanized over 10 years, through 2019. That permit did not allow for the removal of Steller sea lions, and required the agencies to prove an individual California sea lion had been preying on salmon or steelhead before removing it.

With the new permit, WDFW staff captured and killed Steller sea lions at Bonneville dam in October and November, Lee said. Crews were delayed due to wildfires and COVID-19 restrictions, and were learning to deal with the much larger Steller sea lions. "With safety as a priority, this was a slow start," she said.

California and Steller sea lions have varying impacts on ESA-listed runs of salmon and steelhead, she said.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife removed 33 California sea lions at Willamette Falls after determining they were consuming between one-fourth and one-fifth of the steelhead run in 2017 and 2018. Due to those operations, no sea lions were seen at the falls from August 2019 to March 2020 for the first time in a decade, and the risk of extinction for Willamette steelhead dropped from about 89 percent in 2017 to between 1 and 2 percent in 2020, she said.

Nate Pamplin, WDFW's director of budget and government affairs, said that the department submitted a $2.7 million request in the state's 2021-2023 operating budget which includes $1.5 million for pinniped management in the Columbia River.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.