Sea Lions vs Salmon/Steelhead – Who Will Survive?

Annabelle Martin, Staff Reporter

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Over the years residents in Oregon City have seen a change. At the local docks, all the public saw was sea lions basking in the sun being lazy and happy. Little did residents realize the sea lions were causing major environmental changes. In fact, since the 1990’s, sea lions have devoured tens of thousands of fish from the salmon and steelhead population.

The two main locations that the sea lion population has increased is at the Willamette Falls and Bonneville Dam. California Sea lions are becoming a big concern because they are preying on endangered populations of salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

A big change that has been in effect since spring of 2005 is moving sea lions from those locations to California. Those same sea lions in which are trapped and relocated return in only a few days. There have been many repeat offenders and each time they are relocated they seem to return in a shocking short amount of time many miles away. The result in trapping haven’t been the best solution. Live traps are used to capture the sea lions and haul them off, and return shortly. Not only traps have been used, but many other non-lethal hazing tactics such as underwater firecrackers, acoustic devices, boat hazing, pyrotechnics and rubber buckshots. The efforts taken cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually and billions over the last decades. According to the ODFW, it’s not only direct. “The ongoing imperiled status of these fish is not only costing the region millions in direct investments, but also in opportunity costs associated with lost fisheries, restricted power generation, and constraints on land and water use. This means it causes a lot of other branches to have difficulties.

An opportunity to effectively change the sea lion population is Section 120 in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). It was created in March 2008, and was applied to Oregon, Washington and Idaho. It gave federal authorization to wildlife managers to use lethal measures to sea lions who meet a certain criteria. The key points in Section 120 are:

They must be individually identifiable through natural or applied features (usually a brand)

Have been observed eating salmonids in the Bonneville Dam area between Jan. 1 and May 31 of any year

Have been observed on a total of any five days (consecutive days, days within a single season, or days over multiple years) between Jan. 1 and May 31  

Have been subjected to but not responded to non-lethal hazing     -ODFW

The Section also states the limit of sea lion killings is 93 per year. The authorization expired in June 2016 but was renewed and is valid until June 31, 2021.

Michelle Dennehy, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Communications Coordinator,  says, “We need the right tools to take effective measures”. She also stated that “the non-lethal measures aren’t working, tagged sea lions return in about 4-6 days from California.” Dennehy also shared what would happen if  we don’t take the right actions to preserve the salmon/steelhead population, how long until extinction. She says there is “up to 90% one population goes extinct if these levels of predation continue.”

Rick Hargrave, is a member of the Army Corps of Engineers in the Portland Division. He knows there has been a major impact on the salmon population as well as even the sturgeon population. He proposed  his take on the solutions. He stated that “a combo of lethal and non-lethal measures would be the most effective. As well as removing repeat offenders would help stem the younger population.”

Chris Dustin, is a long time local fisherman who has also been qualified for regional fishing tournaments. He has been fishing for 35 years. He talked about how being a professional how he’s seen changes in what he catches or in population. He said “I have noticed a big difference, even in Bass fishing.” Dustin shared based on his observations, what are some negative impacts you’ve seen or heard from others. “They will take your fish off the line while reeling it in.” For a follow up he revealed what his biggest fears are this isn’t addressed or changed. “Running into one or one of them jumping into my boat.” To even think one would do that means this is definitely an issue that needs fixing.

In Oregon locations with high California sea lion populations are in trouble of possible extinctions in fish populations. Lethal measures will definitely be a positive addition to solutions and a right step in preserving the fish populations. Hopefully we can get back to a stable ecosystem right here in Oregon.

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