Federal Approval for Sea Lion Removal Aims to Protect Columbia River Salmon


NOAA Fisheries said that the first sea lion kills allowed by the federal government in the Columbia River in 2024 will probably start next week. States and tribes do the “removals” or “cullings” of sea lions every year to protect the threatened and rare salmon that live in the river and its tributaries.

Around the middle of March, people in Portland saw dozens of male sea lions living on the docks of Hayden Island. Wildlife officials say these sea lions are going upriver to eat smelt that are having their young and salmon that are migrating. In May and June, a lot of them will go back out to sea.

However, more and more sea lions have been seen hunting in the river every year and for longer amounts of time. According to NOAA Fisheries, Steller sea lions have been seen hunting near the Bonneville Dam for 11 months out of the year. They were first seen there in 2003.

NOAA said, “In the last 30 years, the number of California sea lions in the United States has grown from less than 75,000 to an estimated 257,000 animals.” “In the last ten years, the number of California sea lions in the Columbia River basin has grown from less than 500 to about 4,000.”

Concerns have been raised by fishermen and environmentalists who want to protect the threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia River from the yearly sea lion population. In 2018, lawmakers first passed a bill that let tribal and state leaders in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho apply for up to 100 licenses a year to kill sea lions that are eating salmon in those states.

In 2020, NOAA Fisheries changed the Marine Mammal Protection Act to give local states and groups more power. Now, they can kill any California or Steller sea lions that are found in parts of the Columbia River where they are known to specifically hunt salmon and steelhead that are in danger.

Michael Milstein, a regional NOAA Fisheries spokesperson, told KOIN 6 News that in 2023, 25 Steller sea lions and 22 California sea lions were killed properly in the Columbia River.

Milstein said, “As of 2024, none have been taken away yet.” “They’re just starting to put in more work, and it will probably start next week.”

Based on records from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, 411 sea lions have been killed near Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls since 2008. The NOAA says that since the program began, getting rid of these sea lions has saved thousands of threatened and endangered fish in the Columbia River.

Data from before sea lion management showed that sea lions were eating a lot of fish. Each year, they ate up to 44% of the Columbia River spring Chinook run and 25% of the Willamette winter steelhead run, according to the ODFW website. “These rates have gone down a lot since sea lion management started.”

State and tribe officials think that about 290 California sea lions and 130 Steller sea lions hunt in the Columbia River Basin every year as of August 2020. The amount of sea lions killed each year in the Columbia River is not thought to have any effect on the health of either species’ populations because they are less than 0.1% and 0.18% of the total species populations, respectively. The ODFW says that not killing the sea lions could be very bad for the area.

“These fish are in danger of going extinct, which is not only losing millions of dollars in direct investments but also billions of dollars in lost opportunities due to lost fisheries, limited power generation, and limits on land and water use,” the ODFW said.

“If the threat of sea lions killing native fish at these sensitive areas isn’t taken seriously as a tipping point, these investments will likely fail, a lot of work will be wasted, and more and more native fish runs will go extinct at an alarming rate.”

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