By Bob Brown
It is a documented fact California and Steller sea lions are bad news for salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia River and just about every other aquatic species found in the river.
California sea lions killed the largest proportion of spring chinook in 2016 than in any year since 2011, according to information provided by NOAA Fisheries pinniped specialist Robert Anderson. Some 6,371 salmonids were observed being consumed by sea lions at Bonneville Dam, or 3.9 percent of 154,074 salmonids that made it to the dam.
Anderson also said as many as 3,000 California and Steller sea lions are present in the Columbia River from Astoria, Ore. to Bonneville Dam, with three to five sea lions in Bonneville Pool at any time from January to June, when males leave for California breeding grounds.
Earlier this month, the NOAA Fisheries Pinniped-Fisheries Interactive Task Force met for the fifth time in Portland since 2008 to review lethal removal of sea lions and hazing operations aimed at reducing salmon and other species predation by the sea lions at Bonneville Dam. By all accounts, lethal removal hasn't done its job, and hazing activity has been just this side of useless.
According to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the states of Oregon and Washington, responsible for hazing activities, when sea lions are being hazed they don't eat fish, but will quickly return to the dam within as little as 30 minutes to prey on salmon. All members on the task force also believe the lethal removal program has done nothing to eliminated the problem of sea lions eating salmon at the dam.
The current program limits lethal removal of 92 California sea lions each year. However, just 59 were removed in 2016.
There has been some talk among Task Force members of removing some of the barriers that inhibit the program, but that is still up in the air. Currently, before going through the process of being listed for authorized removal, California sea lions must be present at the dam for five consecutive days, be seen by Corps observers eating salmon, and be subjected to hazing first.
One of those barriers is the five-day limit before a sea lion can be captured, branded and eventually removed. According to recent information, many sea lions don't stay at the dam that long. In fact, the amount of time they reside there has dropped significantly since 2008, when the maximum residency for an identified individual was 80 days and the mean was 20 days. In 2016, the maximum residency was 23 days, but the mean was just three days.
The statute says that to mark a sea lion for removal, it must been seen eating fish and have been observed for five days. Daryl Boness, task force scientist, suggested that could be changed to eating or being observed for three to five days.
Doug Hatch, a Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission member, suggested a California sea lion should be eligible for removal if it is upstream of Bonneville Dam, without any other criteria.
Some three to five sea lions are in the 30-mile long pool each day. Not all have been branded, but Hatch is fairly certain if they are there, they are eating fish.
Recommendations to NOAA Fisheries from the task force will be ready in the next couple of weeks. Once the group has completed its deliberations and submitted the recommendations, NOAA will determine a course of action for the sea lion removal program based on the recommendations.
Bob Brown lives in Roy and is a freelance outdoors writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.