Sea Lion-Salmon Cycle Starts Again in Columbia, This Time With Expanded Ability to Kill

Sea lions piled atop the docks of a small town 60 miles from the ocean – an early sign that this year will again be marked by the animals’ outsize appetite for endangered fish, and the first year fishery managers have the authority to kill them in large numbers.

Sea lions crowd a private dock at the marina in Rainier, Ore. (Courthouse News photo /Karina Brown)

RAINIER, Ore. (CN) — The Columbia River was misty and grey an hour from the coast on a recent spring morning, as clouds mingled with the Douglas Fir forests atop the hill above a small town and rolled down to the city’s marina, the water choppy from passing ships. The hoarse barks of 100 sea lions echoed over the water, voices of animals unlikely to survive the year, doomed by their appetite for endangered fish.

Highway 30 runs through Rainier, parallel to the aquatic thoroughfare of the Columbia River. Perched just below the mouth of the Cowlitz River, the waters in Rainier’s front yard are a mingling point for numerous species of fish. In early March, tens of millions of eulachon smelt leave the Pacific and swim up the Columbia River. Eulachon, a threatened species, were a mainstay in the diets of previous generations of Oregonians and the tribes that have lived at this spot for thousands of years. Some peel off the Columbia at Rainier, heading north up the Cowlitz. Following close behind the smelt are spring Chinook, headed up the Columbia to spawn in the rivers and streams of their birth.

The fish are struggling. The various runs of spring Chinook, listed as either threatened or endangered, are in turn the main food source for endangered Southern Resident killer whales. But the fish face habitat loss, warming oceans, inaccessible culverts and dozens of dams, in addition to natural predators. State and federal regulators tightly control fishing here and everywhere in the Columbia River basin. But sport fishing is still an economic driver, and boats crowd the water here each fall, anchoring in groups called hog lines.

And all that fatty traffic has attracted another visitor: sea lions. They’re a major predator here, and a new one that fish didn’t face before the last couple of decades. Sea lions themselves are a success story. California sea lions rebounded from below 90,000 animals in 1975 to a high of 306,000 in 2012 — above carrying capacity for sustainability in the ecosystem. Since then, their numbers have declined to slightly below carrying capacity because of unusually warm ocean conditions known as “the blob.” Stellar sea lions were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2013.

The animals have turned the docks at Rainier into a predation hot spot, similar to feasting grounds the sea lions have established further upriver, on the rocks below Bonneville Dam and at Willamette Falls. In those two spots, tribes and state fishery managers pushed for and won federal approval to kill sea lions in order to prevent them from pushing endangered fish into extinction. They began killing individual sea lions shown to have been eating salmon at Bonneville Dam in 2007.

Just over 500 winter steelhead returned from the ocean to Willamette Falls in 2017, spurring the drive toward more widespread lethal removal of sea lions. Before that, state wildlife managers tried various nonlethal methods, including capturing, tagging and relocating the animals to the southern Oregon coast. Determined swimmers, they reappeared at the falls days later.

In 2019, wildlife managers removed 33 sea lions from Willamette Falls that had been returning there for years, according to Shaun Clements, senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Clements said lethal removal of individual sea lions has reduced numbers at the area’s two biggest predation hotspots from around 100 animals each year at Bonneville Dam and about 40 at Willamette Falls down to 40 at Bonneville and 20 at Willamette Falls.

A sea lion eats a salmon in the Willamette River. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.)

A new permit issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last August allows three states and six tribes to kill as many as 540 California sea lions and 176 Stellar sea lions along the 180 miles between Portland and the McNary Dam. The idea is to halt the sea lions’ annual tradition of following fish up the Columbia.

“They’re very social and take cues from other animals,” Clements said. “So by removing those individuals you break that cycle.”

Despite these efforts, the animals’ appearance now at Rainier marina suggests that this year will be no different. Rainier sits outside the lethal management zone, though managers can cull animals that leave the Columbia to follow salmon up smaller tributaries to their spawning grounds. But it’s a near certainty that the animals congregating here will soon make their way to Bonneville or Willamette Falls — some likely already have.

In past years, the sea lions had caused significant damage to the city-owned docks at the Rainier public marina, according to Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole. They gnawed sections of wood and shoved the underwater balloons that keep the docks afloat out from underneath the walkways.

“That’s not an easy fix,” Cole said.

Since then, the city installed electric fencing to keep the animals off the public docks. Even that won’t stop the occasional determined bull, Cole said. On Wednesday, about 100 sea lions squeezed onto a metal dock owned by a local tugboat company. Arranged in a haphazard order, their hoarse barks erupted each time a new comer hoisted himself up into the pile, disrupting the slumber of those already plopped atop the metal rails. In recent weeks, Cole said, there were hundreds more dotting the river, perched atop shifting sandbar islands.

Cole said local opinion on the sea lions’ seasonal residency was mixed.

“We’ve got some people who hate them for what they do to the salmon,” Cole said. “Others love them like puppy dogs.”

In a healthy ecosystem, where salmon and smelt runs were thriving, there would be plenty of fish for sea lions, as well as birds and humans. But that’s not the current reality in the Columbia River Basin.

Chuck Hudson, now retired from his position as governmental affairs director with Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which represents four of the six tribes that proposed the plan approved by NOAA alongside Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Hudson told Courthouse News at the time that controlling predators — both mammalian and avian — would be necessary until salmon no longer struggled to survive.

“The long-term pathway is not perpetual killing of sea lions, but it is a necessary measure now and until we can accomplish restoration of ecological abundance — not only in the Columbia, but in other salmon-producing systems,” Hudson said. “We simply do our very best, with the authorities we have, to preserve a tenuous balance in a drastically altered environment.”

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