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WDFW Statement Presented by Regional Director Guy Norman
at a Sea Lion Press Conference Sponsored by Congressmen Brian Baird and Doc Hastings

October 16, 2006

My agency has been involved in efforts to restore wild salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia Basin for several decades. We have worked with Oregon, Idaho, and the Columbia River Treaty Indian tribes for over 40 years to manage fisheries and to rebuild salmon populations.

Because of these efforts, some salmon and steelhead populations are increasing, however, many populations remain threatened and endangered.

In response, there has been an extraordinary and growing effort in this region to protect and recover salmon and steelhead. Recovery plans are being developed in every watershed, to restore important habitat, improve dam passage survival, re-tool hatchery programs to assist wild populations, and reshape fisheries by focusing on selectively harvesting healthy hatchery fish.

This salmon recovery effort has been a major investment for the region that will continue as recovery plans are completed and further actions are implemented. The people of the Northwest have supported restoration efforts, and borne the costs, because of the importance of salmon to our heritage, the cultural value to Native Americans, and the economic value of salmon to our fishing communities.

As we address impacts limiting salmon recovery in the Columbia basin - increasing predation by birds, fish, or marine mammals must be addressed as part of an overall recovery process.

There is currently a bounty reward system for fishermen to remove pike minnow fish from the Columbia River system, which are documented as significant predators of juvenile salmon. Predatory birds are being re-located in the lower Columbia River to areas where juvenile salmon are less vulnerable to predation.

In recent years, another threat has emerged. California Sea Lions have learned a new behavior, with many of the animals swimming 145 miles up the Columbia River in the spring to prey on threatened adult salmon while the fish attempt to pass through fish ladders at Bonneville Dam. Many of the wild salmon have over 500 miles to travel before completing their journey from the river mouth to the spawning grounds.

The rate in which the California sea lions are eating wild and hatchery origin salmon at Bonneville Dam has been increasing. There were 31 sea lions observed in the area in 2002. The numbers have ranged from 85-111in the years since 2002. These sea lions have consumed an average of 3 percent of the spring salmon passing Bonneville Dam over the past two years. These estimates do not include the salmon consumed by more then 1,000 sea lions that work the 140 miles of the Columbia River and tributaries downstream of Bonneville Dam. Last year, biologists also observed an increasing number of sea lions preying on large adult sturgeon preparing to spawn below Bonneville Dam.

In contrast, both sport and commercial fishing regulations for spring salmon require that only marked hatchery fish can be retained, while unmarked wild salmon must be released unharmed. Tribal spring fisheries have been reduced to levels below their minimum cultural and subsistence needs.

In the past two years, there has been a collective effort by Washington and Oregon Fish and Wildlife agencies, National Marine Fisheries Service, the Army Corp Of Engineers, and the Columbia River Treaty Indian Tribes to assert non-lethal hazing methods in an attempt to change the behavior of the sea lions in the area near Bonneville Dam.

The hazing efforts temporarily moved animals, but many of the California sea lions returned within a few hours. Many learn to avoid the hazing and continue to eat threatened salmon. Some individual California sea lions have learned to repeatedly return to Bonneville Dam each spring to eat salmon.

Needless to say, this is a very unnatural situation that requires active intervention to restore nature's balance. It is vitally important to restore a balance in the Columbia River between the overly abundant California sea lion population and the endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead populations.

In areas where wild salmon are vulnerable, we need to use every available wildlife management tool to restore that balance. When our best efforts to change a sea lion's behavior fail, we need the authority to remove those individual animals that have returned to prey on threatened salmon.

The Fish and Wildlife agencies of Washington and Oregon are applying to the Secretary of Commerce for limited authority to remove California sea lions, if necessary, to protect wild salmon populations. This authorization is currently accessible to state and local governments through section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, the process is lengthy and would not enable action next spring when salmon and steelhead return.

Congressmen Baird and Congressmen Hastings have introduced a Bill that would hasten the application process and include participation by the four lower Columbia Treaty Indian tribes as well as the states. Their introduced amendment limits the number of animals that could be removed and only applies to individual California sea lions that have not responded to hazing attempts.

We believe the Bill introduced by Congressmen Baird and Hastings will not only help us keep the sea lion predation on salmon from getting worse, but will help us restore the balance between sea lions and salmon. Meanwhile, Washington and Oregon are jointly proceeding with the Section 120 application process through the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

We appreciate the effort of our Congressmen to protect the salmon and steelhead resources of the Northwest. We look forward to working with them as we continue with regional investments to restore Columbia Basin salmon. Thank you for your work and your service to the citizens of the Northwest.