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Wandering sea lions endangering salmon, steelhead below Bonneville Dam

MOSES LAKE — With 55 years of experience fishing the Columbia River and tributaries around the state, as well as 31 years of experience as a fishing guide, the majority of Moses Lake resident Rick Graser’s adult life has been devoted to the fishing industry in some shape or form. A longtime problem with sea lions preying on at-risk fish populations, like salmon, steelhead and sturgeon, on the Columbia River has Graser concerned, fired up and, most of all, motivated to see a legislative fix for the issue.

“I am speaking on behalf of all recreational sports fishermen,” Graser said. “I am going to be their voice.”

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California sea lion usually breeds on offshore islands in Southern California south all the way down to Mexico. Males that don’t breed have been venturing north in the spring since the mid-1980s in search of prey and making their way into the Columbia River, the Willamette River and smaller tributaries before arriving at Bonneville Dam, which is nearly 150 miles from the mouth of the Columbia.

When the animals reach Bonneville Dam they encounter a true buffet of fish to feed on. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been monitoring the predation on salmon and steelhead below the dam from January through May since 2002. The number of California sea lions topped out at 195 in 2015 and hit a low of 30 in 2002, but the number of consumed fish during the 16-year time span has averaged almost 4,000 per year directly below the dam.

Estimates put the number of sea lions at around 4,500 in the Columbia River from Bonneville Dam to Astoria, Ore. The problem is that another breed of sea lion, the Steller sea lion, is staying in the Columbia River year-round and not migrating.

“Sea lions don’t eat the whole fish. They mostly eat the belly of the fish where the most oily part of the salmon is, including the salmon roe,” Graser explained. “Other parts of the fish are wasted.”

A total of 32 wild salmon populations in the Upper Columbia River and Snake Rivers are at risk for predation by sea lions below Bonneville Dam. The population that is most at risk is the Upper Columbia River spring chinook run, which the Endangered Species Act lists as threatened and is prone to predation by sea lions that feed downriver from the Bonneville Dam. Further, the WDFW estimates the winter steelhead runs have a 90 percent chance of extinction without action on the sea lion issue. In 2000 there were an estimated 20,000 winter run steelhead that went over the Willamette Falls in Oregon, opposed to just over 500 fish counted from the 2017 return.

With hundreds of millions of dollars spent by governing agencies on salmon recovery, as well as damage done by sea lions to docks, the issue of sea lions is one that crosses boundaries and not only has an impact on fish runs, but on taxpayers as well with taxes levied for salmon recovery. Estimates put the cost to fix damage done to docks by sea lions in Astoria between $60,000-$100,000 a year, according to the Port of Astoria.

“The Columbia and Willamette rivers are being inundated with sea lions that are not native to our area and are prolific salmon-killing machines. It has been documented that up to 24 salmon have been consumed by one sea lion in one day,” said state Sen. Linda Wilson, R-Vancouver. “Multiply that by the thousands of sea lions in these rivers. With the amount of funding being spent by Washington state and federally to protect our salmon, we need to do everything we can at the state level to support swift action by Congress to remedy this situation.”

The problem is that although the California sea lion and the Steller sea lion, both of which have been counted below Bonneville Dam, are not listed under the ESA, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

“In March 2008, fish and wildlife agencies in Washington, Oregon and Idaho received federal authorization to remove California sea lions that have been observed preying on salmon and steelhead below Bonneville Dam,” states WDFW’s website.

Wildlife managers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho can trap and euthanize up to 93 California sea lions per year. U.S. Rep Jaime Herrera-Beutler, R-Battle Ground, introduced a bill, H.R. 2083, in June 2017 that, if passed, would give tribal/governmental fish managers the ability to lethally remove up to 100 sea lions per permit. An identical bill, S. 1702, has been introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho.

“The threat to endangered salmon and steelhead hasn’t been considered such a high priority until this year as there is now unanimous agreement among local, state, and federal agencies as well as tribal groups that sea lions are the prime culprit for their decline. It’s beyond dispute that this legislative solution is urgent to save our native fish,” reads a statement from Herrera-Beutler’s office.

In January, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter sent a letter to a Northwest U.S. House delegation in which they urged the lawmakers to support Herrera-Beutler’s bill. Locally, Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, supports finding an appropriate fix.

“I am glad that this issue is coming to light because we are spending … so much money on replenishing the salmon runs, replenishing the species and we are being negated every step of the way if those sea lions grab the salmon before they can get past the first dam,” Warnick stated. “It’s a matter of not only helping the salmon, but it’s a matter of economics.”

To Graser, who recently accompanied a group of lawmakers to Bonneville Dam to see the issue firsthand, which Warnick was a part of, time is of the utmost importance and he believes lawmakers have dropped the ball over the years with regard to the issue.

In 1999, a report prepared by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Marine Fisheries Service was sent to Congress that detailed the problem and laid out a series of recommendations. Over the years no legislation has been passed, and people like Graser are growing restless. He is encouraging East Coast lawmakers to come out and see the problem firsthand.

“I personally invite President Donald Trump to come as well, and I’ll take him fishing so he can see just how bad it is. We’ve tried everything. So it’s to the point that between the inactivity of our legislators to stand up and address this problem in 1999 when it was first sent to Congress and now, because of their inactivity, it has forced us who are affected by the problem to get the sea lion numbers back under control,” Graser said.

“This is an emergency! Not only is this an issue for salmon, but the sea lions are eating sturgeon as well, 3,000 in the Columbia River and 2,000 in the Willamette River annually.”


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