By MARY LOOS, KATU
BONNEVILLE DAM, Columbia River Gorge (KATU) - Sea lions versus native salmon and steelhead -- it’s a battle that wildlife and fisheries managers in both Oregon and Washington have been in the midst of for years now.
California and Stellar sea lions have been swimming up both the Willamette and Columbia rivers for more than a decade, hunting the native fish species that's trying to make it upstream to spawn.
Right now, with an exemption to the 1974 Marine Mammal Protection Act, Fish and Wildlife officials can kill up to 92 of the repeat offending “salmon diners” per year. Officials complain the multi-step process to do that takes too much time.
A bipartisan bill called the “Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act” is being co-sponsored by Oregon U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader and Washington U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler. It aims to streamline the process to lethally remove the sea lions and increase the number that can be killed.
"What I've told my leadership is, this bill is a must pass. We have to do this,” said Herrera-Beutler.
The congresswoman visited Bonneville Dam to see part of the process of sea lion removal. Not only are individuals with flash-bang-type noisemakers stationed on the dam itself, but a team patrols the water in a boat using similar methods to “haze” the sea lions. The goal is to chase them away from the base of the dam where fish congregate.
One bold Stellar sea lion even swam by to check out the crowd of officials, staff and media gathered on shore.
“I think this is a great example; it’s not working,” said Herrera-Beutler. “We’re reaching the probability that some runs are going to become extinct.”
Extinction is on the mind of Mark Sherwood. He leads the Oregon City-based Native Fish Society. The group was started in 1995 and is the largest science based, grassroots, native fish preservation society in the Northwest. Sherwood's focused on the other impacts to native runs: harvest, habitat, hydro, and hatcheries.
“We need to be looking at the things like dam removal, like habitat restoration, like reforming our hatchery programs, like reforming our fisheries and making them sustainable so that we can actually increase the number of salmon and steelhead,” he said. “I think now in the next couple of decades we’re really going into a critical moment where we don’t start taking on some of those core issues, whether or not we’re culling sea lions isn’t going to make a difference.”
Sharon Young is field director of Marine Wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States. She serves on the Bonneville Dam Task Force and is very familiar with the bill Herrera-Beutler supports. She agrees with Sherwood that there are other impacts that need work. She says the Humane Society believes the bill’s increase in the number of sea lions is not needed because officials aren’t even taking the number they’re currently allowed.
Herrera-Beutler argues that’s because the process is too cumbersome.
Young makes another point though.
“This one bill would seek to kill enormous numbers of these animals without any ability to determine what difference it might make or to allow the public to review what the results of it were,” she said.
Herrera-Beutler says it’s the wildlife officials who are asking for this bill and that they are working on other methods to preserve the fish and improve their numbers.
Off-camera officials told KATU the sea lion population is just too much for the fish. The animals are living at the dam for 10 months out of the year and are now endangering all fish populations. On the morning of the tour, U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers only counted 40 fish over the dam. In the past, numbers were much higher.
The bill has passed committee, and is waiting for a vote in the House.