Idaho GOP Sen. Jim Risch and Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell have introduced legislation to allow fisheries managers in the Columbia River and its tributaries to apply for permits to remove up to 10 percent of the sea lions, as the protected animals increasingly threaten the region’s declining salmon and steelhead. Sea lions, while not listed as threatened or endangered, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, limiting options for their removal. They began appearing in the Columbia River seasonally in the 1980s, and by 2006, about 2,200 were living in the Columbia, with some making their way hundreds of miles upriver to key salmon and steelhead spawning areas.
Now, sea lions are eating so many young salmon that in locations like Willamette Falls, at least a quarter of the winter steelhead run there was consumed in 2017, and the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife has estimated that there’s a 90 percent chance that at least one of the three runs there will go extinct.
“Salmon consumption at the Bonneville Dam is five times what it was five years ago,” Risch said, “and threatened and endangered species of salmon are being damaged by sea lions in the Columbia River.” In 2016, 9,525 spring chinook salmon were eaten by sea lions at the Bonneville Dam, up from 1,750 in 2012.
Cantwell said, “Pacific salmon are central to our culture, our livelihoods, and our economy in the Pacific Northwest. Taxpayers throughout Washington, Idaho and Oregon have made significant investments in Pacific salmon restoration, and we must continue to support science-based management methods to ensure future generations have access to wild Pacific Northwest salmon. I want to thank my colleague Sen. Risch for working with me on this bipartisan, science-based solution that will help protect salmon for future generations.”
The two senators say sea lion populations have increased by more than 10 times over the past 50 years, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act is a conservation success — but they’re now at or near the biological carrying capacity of their habitat. Unlike the sea lions, most salmon and steelhead populations in the lower Columbia are listed under the Endangered Species Act.