The Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife departments are stepping up sea lion deterrence efforts in the Columbia River this year, and are seeking federal authority that would allow removal of selected problem animals in future years if expanded hazing is unsuccessful.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission agreed to seek federal authority to expand future sea lion management options during a public meeting today in Newport, and the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission agreed to the same course after a discussion in its February public meeting.
Up to 1,000 sea lions flocked to the Columbia River last year, devouring spring chinook salmon and making their way up the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam, despite attempts to drive them off with fireworks and acoustic devices. This year, sea lions also have been observed killing adult female sturgeon, and have entered Columbia River tributaries, such as the Lewis River, where they are feeding on steelhead.
With this year’s upriver spring chinook salmon run predicted at only 88,000 fish, biologists estimate sea lions could kill as much as 10 percent of the run. As spring chinook salmon begin to make their way up the Columbia River, biologists are growing more concerned about the sea lions’ impact on the river’s fish populations, several of which are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“The states will be using every hazing method available to us under federal law, including acoustic and percussive devices, flares, and rubber bullets,” said Steve Williams, acting administrator of the Fish Division for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Williams said the hazing campaign will broaden last year’s efforts to keep sea lions from preying on salmon and other fish species near Bonneville Dam. Like last year, state fish and wildlife agencies will conduct the hazing in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, operators of the dam.
The new hazing activities are scheduled to begin April 1 from Bonneville Dam downstream approximately 12 miles to Marker 85. The directors of the two state agencies informed NMFS of the expanded hazing plans in a March 15 letter.
Meanwhile, Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife agencies will seek federal authority and funding to remove a select number of problem sea lions from the river if hazing is determined to be unsuccessful.
Removing sea lions – which could include both lethal and non-lethal methods – must be approved by the NMFS, the federal agency that manages sea lions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If the states’ request is approved, removal of problem sea lions is not expected to begin until after this year’s hazing activities have been completed and assessed.
During its regular monthly commission meeting today in Newport, Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission directed agency staff to begin the process of applying for authority under Section 120 of the act, which would allow lethal removal of specific nuisance animals. Oregon Commissioners cautioned members of the public in attendance that the move toward Section 120 authority will not provide immediate relief.
“We urge people looking for a ‘quick fix’ to this problem to be realistic,” said Commission Chair Marla Rae. “This process is neither quick, nor a good permanent fix. Resolving the sea lion issue and protecting Oregon’s fish stocks will require an act of Congress, not an act of this Commission. However, we realize this is a serious problem, and seeking federal authority to manage it is an important step in the right direction.”
The Oregon Commission also directed agency leaders to convene a workgroup with constituents, stakeholders and neighboring states to begin exploring appropriate possible venues to propose federal legislative changes.
Jeff Koenings, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he is encouraged that state and federal agencies are in agreement on the need to address the problem of sea lion predation through cooperative management strategies.
“Sea lion predation in the Columbia River is clearly a persistent problem that appears to be getting worse, and we need to explore every option available to resolve it,” Koenings said. “We’re concerned about balance—in the Columbia River, an overly robust population of California sea lions is preying on weak populations of wild salmon and steelhead. We need to pursue an active management approach that restores balance to the river system.”
The hazing actions set to begin next month will expand on last year’s efforts, which focused on the area of river immediately below the Bonneville Dam fish ladders. In that first experiment, NMFS, the Corps, and the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife conducted a two-day hazing and assessment effort using both percussive and acoustic devices. Results showed sea lions were driven off temporarily, but returned within a day.
Since that time the Corps has installed grates in front of the fish ladders and has placed acoustic devices in the ladders designed to deter sea lions from entering. However, at least one sea lion made its way through the grates and entered the fish ladders this spring.
As sea lions have rebounded in recent years, their impact on salmon and sturgeon populations also has increased. An adult sea lion typically eats five to seven salmon a day. Last year 500-1,000 sea lions were estimated to be hunting in the Columbia River, and at least as many are expected to enter the river this year seeking food.
Some 100 sea lions at Bonneville Dam last year were estimated to have eaten approximately 3-4 percent of the 106,000 spring chinook salmon run passing the dam, according to Corps biologists. State biologists said additional salmon were consumed downstream in the river.
While hazing will be aimed at stopping sea lions from killing salmon, other fish in the river, including sturgeon, are expected to benefit, an outcome that pleases fish biologists concerned about the increasing number of reports of sea lions seen eating sturgeon.
“The Columbia River supports the largest healthy white sturgeon population in the world,” said Williams, “and sea lions have the potential to severely deplete mature female sturgeon, which are their preferred prey. Those sturgeon represent the future of the species.”
In addition to the biological impacts caused by sea lion predation, reduced salmon and sturgeon populations also could have a negative effect on the local economy.
“Sport and commercial fisheries in the Columbia River are fundamental to the regional economy and to the social traditions of the Pacific Northwest,” said Roy Elicker, interim director of ODFW. “Sea lion predation on salmon and sturgeon, if left unchecked, has the potential to rise to a level that causes economic harm to individuals and businesses that depend on Columbia River fisheries.”