Shutdown Stunting Oregon Bid to Keep Salmon Alive

OREGON CITY, Ore. (CN) – Oregon’s effort to prevent California sea lions from feasting on the dwindling winter steelhead at Willamette Falls will not proceed as planned because of the federal government shutdown.

California sea lions eating salmonids (salmon or steelhead) at Willamette Falls. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Officials have so far trapped and euthanized four California sea lions that collectively eat about one quarter of the shrinking returns of winter steelhead at Willamette Falls. The water below the falls have become a reliable bonanza for hungry sea lions, along the journey from the ocean back to the headwaters where steelhead were born, and where they will spawn.

Last year, only 512 wild winter steelhead returned from the sea, stymied by poor ocean conditions and a network of dams that crowd the way home. But a relatively new problem threatens to eclipse the first two: the hungry mouths of dozens of sea lions waiting at the falls.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife launched a program to capture and kill the massive marine mammals after attempts to haul them back to the ocean failed. Despite being trucked hundreds of miles to the southern coast of Oregon, the animals promptly swam back – one sea lion made the return trip in three days.

This year could be the third in a row with the worst returns on record, and state biologists aren’t optimistic.

“There’s potential that we’re already past the point where they can recover and we just won’t know it for another decade,” said Shaun Clements, senior policy analyst with Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Now, the federal government shutdown is stunting the plan to keep California sea lions from completely wiping out winter steelhead. Furloughs prevent the state wildlife agency from getting the federal approval it needs to remove some of the animals. Robert Anderson at the National Marine Fisheries Service is furloughed and hasn’t communicated with the manager in charge of the state plan since Dec. 21.

While state officials have authorization to capture and kill sea lions that have been marked as having been there previously, newcomers must be marked and released. If they return or don’t leave, the state would ask Anderson for approval to trap and remove them – an easy process when the federal government is functional.

Bryan Wright, the state’s program manager overseeing the project, said Monday his staff has reported, and surveillance cameras have confirmed, an unmarked California sea lion at Willamette Falls.

That means one of the three California sea lions documented at Willamette Falls this weekend gets a reprieve from the imminent death sentence his two friends face. Rather than preventing sea lions from completely wiping out winter steelhead, the shutdown could end up clearing space at the buffet for the animals the state doesn’t yet have federal go-ahead to remove.

“If the shutdown was over, we could euthanize,” Wright told Courthouse News. “If it’s continuing, we’d have to let him go again.”

And depending on how long it lasts, the government shutdown could also end up imperiling spring Chinook salmon – the fish that endangered Southern Resident killer whales need to avoid their own looming extinction.

“If it carries on it will be a bigger impact on the spring Chinook run,” said Shaun Clements, senior policy analyst with Washington Fish & Wildlife. “Relative to the winter steelhead, they’re in a much better place, but extinction risk for spring Chinook is still pretty high.”

Sea lions typically trek north from their breeding grounds to the mouth of the Columbia River, where massive schools of smelt used to feed marine mammals, migrating birds and pods of whales. But smelt are in serious decline. Listed for protection in 2010 under the Endangered Species Act, their numbers were so low this winter that both Oregon and Washington cancelled smelt fishing seasons.

California sea lions eating salmonids (salmon or steelhead) at Willamette Falls. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

So sea lions have learned to improvise.

Up river, 126 miles from the Columbia River estuary, they find a fresh water paradise: a rocky cul-de-sac with an abundant food source. Each 500-pound California male sea lion – females don’t venture into colder northern waters – eats two or three winter steelhead per day, easy pickings at the falls.

“They remember that,” Wright said. “And the next year, another animal follows it up. It really is a learned behavior, like how some bears in national parks learn to eat out of trash cans.”

And there’s another wrinkle: Stellar sea lions, which are three to four times the size of their California cousins, appear to have heard about the perpetual dinner party at Willamette Falls. The state has legal authority to remove and kill Stellar sea lions at Willamette Falls, but not until 2020. Seven were seen there over the weekend.

In the Columbia River, Stellar sea lions feast on salmon. But the Willamette, they are so far mostly eating sturgeon.

“Sea lions experienced a huge rebound under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the ocean just can’t support that many anymore,” Clements said. “There’s not enough food out there.”

At least for now, some of them will live and feast safely at Willamette Falls.

A pair of sea lions swim near the Williamette Falls in Oregon. (Karina Brown/CNS)
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