Oregon, Washington and Tribes Again Take Aim
by Andrew Theen
Kurt Schrader, a fifth-term congressman, said the dam argument is a
"total red herring" brought up by people who "don't want to face reality."
Congress is once again considering giving Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife officials and regional tribes broader authority to kill sea lions below the Bonneville Dam, an effort supporters say is necessary to protect 13 endangered species of salmon and steelhead.
But unlike previous attempts to rein in the marine mammals, which are protected under federal law, the legislation goes beyond killing the dozens that converge each spring on the fish logjam at the Columbia River dam 145 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
The bipartisan team behind the bill -- Reps. Jaime Herrera-Beutler, R-Washington, and Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon -- want to go much further. They also want to make it easier to kill California sea lions found on the Willamette River and its tributaries, and anywhere on the Columbia River east of Interstate 205.
If the legislation is approved, as many as 920 sea lions could be killed annually, compared with 92 under the current agreement.The bill's supporters say they don't envision ever reaching that toll – that would be expensive and a public relations nightmare. The measure, they say, would allow them to move quickly to remove nuisance animals before they engage in a months-long feast on prized spring Chinook salmon, an industry that accounts for hundreds of millions of dollars in business in the Pacific Northwest. In 2016, the states removed and euthanized 59 sea lions, the most in any single year since the program began in 2008 (two additional sea lions were accidentally killed).
Animal rights advocates and some members of Schrader's party describe the bill as "extreme," and a distraction from the real issues preventing salmon and steelhead recovery in the Columbia River basin. The debate took center stage at a Congressional hearing last month.
"There is an elephant in the room," U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, the ranking member of a subcommittee on natural resources, said before the hearing. "Four elephants to be precise." The California Democrat and some salmon rights groups say four "increasingly obsolete" dams on the Snake River pose a greater risk to salmon than sea lions.
"The Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams have caused salmon returns to the Snake to plummet by 90 percent," Huffman said, "disadvantaging commercial, recreational, and tribal fishing interests and threatening many salmon runs with extinction."
It's not an isolated opinion. Five times in the past two decades, the government plan to manage the threatened fish has been rejected by a federal court. Last year, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon said the government should put all options on the table to recover salmon, including removing the four Snake River dams.
Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, said killing more sea lions fixes nothing and is a "draconian solution."
"It's a complete distraction from dealing with the actual problems facing the fish," said Young, who has participated in marine mammal protections workgroups since 1992.
But Schrader, a fifth-term congressman, said the dam argument is a "total red herring" brought up by people who "don't want to face reality."
"Our bill deals with a much more obvious and persistent problem," he said of the sea lions.
When Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, making it illegal to kill or harass marine mammals, the California sea lion population hovered around 10,000.
Today they number an estimated 300,000, stretching from Mexico to Southeast Alaska. Oregon's transient sea lion population consists of largely massive males who venture north from the California breeding grounds to eat while females nurse the pups.
Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal research scientist with Washington State Fish and Wildlife since the early 1980s, said the animals were treated like a pest species before the federal protections passed. Oregon and Washington paid trappers to kill or keep the pinnipeds out of the Columbia River until 1970. It also was standard procedure to kill sea lions if they were in the river.
Today the animals can gather for months at a time in places like Astoria, where recently more than 5,000 were clustered.
Close to 70,000 California sea lions pass the mouth of the Columbia for waters north, Jeffries said, but hundreds of the animals are increasingly swimming upriver instead of lounging in Astoria.
Jeffries said it's no mystery why. "If you stay at the dam, you hang out at the dam, your refrigerator is constantly getting filled," he said. "It's a perfect spot to live if you're a sea lion."
Doug Hatch, senior fisheries specialist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said sea lions migrating so far upriver is a "relatively new phenomenon."
Harbor seals were not uncommon at Celilo Falls, the natural wonder flooded by the Dallas Dam on the Columbia. But Hatch said nobody knows for sure whether California sea lions made it that far upriver.
"They were hunted for sure, when they were there," he said.
SALMON RUNS PLUNGE
The spring Chinook run on the Columbia used to number in the millions, but this year it was closer to 100,000.
According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, sea lions consumed 5.8 percent of the spring Chinook run that made it to Bonneville Dam last year, an estimated 9,525 fish. That's an eight-fold increase over estimates from 2002.
The pinnipeds also are increasingly taking a right turn at the Willamette River and swimming up to Willamette Falls.
"People quit fishing the Oregon City area because close to 80 or 90 percent of the time, there was a sea lion on top of you," said Bob Rees, a sixth generation Oregonian and executive director of Northwest Steelheaders.
They're also being spotted on rivers like the Clackamas.
Shaun Clements, a senior policy adviser on fish issues, said the worsening problem prompted the state to say last month it would apply for a permit to kill sea lions on the Willamette for the first time. That permit will likely be submitted next month. Roughly one-quarter of the winter steelhead run was wiped out by sea lions, he said.
"That population is getting pretty dire," he said.
State biologists, officials with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and tribal officials say the true number of fish consumed by sea lions is unknowable because sea lions travel upriver from the ocean and presumably eat salmon along the way.
The bill in Congress estimates the mammals eat "at least 20 percent" of the spring Chinook run and 15 percent of the winter steelhead run on the Willamette River.
Clements said state estimates point to sea lions consuming 7 to 8 percent of wild Chinook on the Willamette. Historically, the Willamette estimates were around 15 percent, but that increased to 25 percent this year.
'MISCONCEPTIONS' AND MISGUIDED POLICIES
The Humane Society of America disputes nearly every argument made by state and federal officials concerning sea lions, and points out the commercial and recreational fisheries also affect salmon runs.
The nonprofit went to federal court to block the government from giving Oregon, Washington and Idaho the authority to kill sea lions at Bonneville back in the mid-2000s.
The arguments are the same today, Young said, just more extreme.
It's a misconception that sea lions eat fish all the way from the mouth of the river to Bonneville, she said. "There's no documentation to show that," she said of the estimates included in the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act.
She believes its supporters don't grasp the backlash they'd face if it was open season on seals and sea lions.
"If you really care about the fish," she said, "do something that will help them instead of shooting sea lions."
At the congressional hearing last month, Nez Perce General Council Chairman Gary Dorr criticized the lack of focus on the issues caused by the dams throughout the river system.
If they are not removed, salmon won't recover. "This is not just a loss for my tribe," he said, "but everyone in the Northwest."
SHOOT TO KILL
In 2016, nearly 200 sea lions were spotted at Bonneville from January to May 31, the second most since the government started tracking them. Of that number, 149 were California sea lions and 41 the larger Steller sea lions.
Hatch said nobody knows how many animals would need to be removed before other sea lions got the message and stopped swimming upriver. "If you were able to remove about 100 animals there [at Bonneville] and about 30 or 40 from the Willamette you could make a pretty good dent in it," he said,
It's unclear whether this iteration of the bill will fare better than previous efforts. Several times, the House passed legislation only to watch it die in the Senate.
Schrader said he is confident the bill has made traction. "I want this thing to pass," he said.
Jeffries, the Washington marine mammal specialist, said the management question is not going away.
"We can't ignore the issue, and we can't go kill them outright," he said, "We've got to have something in the middle."
Hazing Sea Lions: Like the Sheep Dog and Coyote Fable, But on Water by Andrew Theen, The Oregonian, 7/14/17
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs