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Oregon Plan To Euthanize Sea Lions At Willamette Falls Approved By NOAA Fisheries
Posted on Tuesday, November 20, 2018 (PST)

NOAA Fisheries approved Oregon’s request to lethally remove up to 93 sea lions per year at Willamette Falls where the pinnipeds are eating as much as 25 percent of wild winter steelhead adults and up to 9 percent of wild spring chinook, both threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

 

Sea lions are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, but after trying hazing and non-lethal removal of the California sea lions for years to discourage them from hanging out at Willamette Falls, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife last year applied to NOAA for authorization to lethally remove a limited number of California sea lions under a MMPA Section 20 permit.

 

ODFW applied for the permit Oct.6, 2017, and this August NOAA convened an 18-member Willamette Falls Pinniped Task Force that in an Oct. 15 recommendation said the permit should be authorized (see CBB, October 26, 2018, “Willamette Falls Pinniped Task Force Recommends Lethal Removal Of California Sea Lions,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/441726.aspx).

 

Oregon filed for the application because its analyses showed that the high levels of predation by sea lions (25 percent of the steelhead run in 2017) meant there was an almost 90 percent probability that one of the upper Willamette steelhead runs would go extinct, according to an ODFW news release. The level of predation on spring chinook, although lower (7-9 percent each year), was still enough to increase the extinction risk by 10-15 percent.

 

“This is good news for the native runs of salmon and steelhead in the Willamette River,” said Dr. Shaun Clements, ODFW policy analyst on the sea lion issue. “Before this decision, the state’s hands were tied as far as limiting sea lion predation on the Willamette River. We did put several years’ effort into non-lethal deterrence, none of which worked. The unfortunate reality is that, if we want to prevent extinction of the steelhead and chinook, we will have to lethally remove sea lions at this location.”

 

Clements said the permit to lethally remove California sea lions does not apply to the much larger steller sea lions, which are present at the Falls in growing numbers and that prey to a large extent on white sturgeon in the Willamette River.

 

“Steller sea lions are preying heavily on sturgeon in the lower Willamette, but current federal law prohibits us from doing anything about that,” said Clements.

 

California sea lions in the U.S. are not listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The most recent population estimate for the sea lions in the U.S. was 296,750 animals in 2016.

 

ODFW requested and was granted authority to remove up to one percent of the population’s “potential biological removal” level, a metric that translates to a maximum of 93 animals a year on the lower Willamette River.

 

According to ODFW’s Marine Mammal Program Lead Dr. Shea Steingass, there are 50-100 animals that are present at the Falls at some point in the year.

 

“Removal of these sub-adult and adult males will have no impact on viability of the sea lion population but will greatly improve the outlook for threatened upper Willamette winter steelhead runs,” she said. “We currently have up to 12 animals at the Falls and a majority of those have been seen here every year for the past 10 years.”

 

With the authorization to lethally remove California sea lions, she added, ODFW can move forward with its plans to trap and remove the animals from the Willamette River.

 

According to the federal authorization, to remove an individual sea lion, ODFW must first observe a sea lion in the area between Willamette Falls and the mouth of the Clackamas River for two days, or the sea lion must be seen eating salmonids.

 

California sea lions captured by Oregon biologists will be transported to a secure facility and humanely euthanized by a veterinary staff, ODFW said. Staff will also perform a necropsy and collect samples to determine the age, health and diet of the animal in an effort to better understand ecology and behavior of the sea lions. ODFW will continue to monitor sea lion predation at Willamette Falls and report its findings to NOAA, which will decide in five years whether to renew ODFW’s authority.

 

Clements said that removing the sea lions is about striking a balance between the recovery of imperiled salmon and steelhead and the ongoing conservation of sea lions.

 

“We are trying to prevent a few individual sea lions from habituating to these areas that are hundreds of miles from the ocean where they are especially effective at driving already depleted fish populations further down the path to extinction,” he said.

 

Predation by pinnipeds also threatens to undermine the gains made by significant regional investments in recovery efforts, according to ODFW, such as improvements in fish passage at dams, restoration of fish habitat and implementation of fishing regulations that prohibit anglers from harvesting wild fish.

 

The MMPA, unlike the ESA, has fewer tools for managers to use to balance the conservation of predators and prey and prevent these situations in locations where fish are most vulnerable. Sections of the MMPA were revised in 1994 to allow limited management of sea lions for the purpose of protecting ESA-listed salmon and steelhead.

 

Unfortunately, ODFW said, the revisions do not allow for proactive management and cannot address emergencies like that occurring at Willamette Falls.

 

“In this regard, ODFW has been working with Oregon’s congressional delegation, which is working on a legislative solution that would give wildlife managers broader authority to deal with conservation problems if they arise elsewhere in the Columbia Basin,” ODFW said

 

“I’m optimistic that we’ll get what we need from Congress, but also nervous that time is running out to get this done before the end of the congressional calendar,” said Clements.

 

In its deliberations, the sea lion task force had considered the impact U.S. Senate legislation would have on a task force decision, deciding it would meet by phone to discuss the impact if the legislation is approved. That legislation would change the MMPA by giving more flexibility to remove sea lions that prey upon threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River and its tributaries.

 

The bill, labeled the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Act, passed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation unopposed Aug. 1 and is still awaiting final approval. The bipartisan legislation was proposed by Sens. Jim Risch (R-ID) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA).

 

(See CBB, August 10, 2018, “Legislation Streamlining Sea Lion Removal In Columbia River Basin Clears Senate Committee,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/441259.aspx)

 

Willamette Falls sea lion task force website is at https://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/task_force.willamette.html and the final report of Oct. 15, 2018 is at (https://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/publications/protected_species/marine_mammals/pinnipeds/sea_lion_removals/2018/willamette_falls_final_report___10-15-18.pdf).

 

ODFW’s 2017 application is at https://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/publications/protected_species/marine_mammals/pinnipeds/sea_lion_removals/2018/state_of_oregon_section_120_application__with_steelhead_pva_.pdf

 

Also see:

 

--CBB, August 17, 2018, “Willamette Falls Sea Lion Task Force Meets Three Days Next Week To Review Lethal Removal Request,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/441299.aspx

 

--CBB, March 16, 2018, “Corps Report: Pinniped Predation Consumed 4.7 Percent Of Salmonids In 2017 In Bonneville Tailwater,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440368.aspx

 

--CBB, January 19, 2018, “West Coast California Sea Lion Population Has Rebounded; Meets Marine Mammal Protection Act Goal,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440111.aspx

 

--CBB, August 11, 2017, “ODFW Analysis: With Continued Sea Lion Predation Willamette Winter Steelhead At Risk Of Extinction,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/439416.aspx

 

--CBB, June 23, 2017, “Oregon To Seek Permit To Lethally Remove Salmonid-Eating Sea Lions At Willamette Falls,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/439150.aspx

 

-- CBB, March 10, 2017, “Corps Report: Sea Lions In Bonneville Dam Tailrace In 2016 Consumed 4.5 Percent Of Spring Chinook” http://www.cbbulletin.com/438453.aspx

 

--CBB, July 15, 2016, “NOAA Re-Authorizes States To Lethally Remove Salmon-Eating California Sea Lions At Dam,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/437133.aspx

 

--CBB, June 17, 2016, “Final 2016 Pinniped Report: Sea Lion Salmon Take Astoria To Bonneville Dam Could Be 20 Percent Of Run,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/436941.aspx

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