Landmark Legislation Offers Hope for Columbia River Salmon
By Tyler Comeau
This past December, the U.S. House voted to pass bipartisan legislation that will protect salmon and steelhead from excessive sea lion predation in the Columbia River basin. The Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Act (S. 3119) was passed by the U.S. Senate earlier in the month and was signed into law by President Trump in the White House the week before Christmas.
Adopted by Unanimous Consent in both the House and Senate, the bill caps a decade-long effort to pass sea lion legislation, which has been a key priority for Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR). Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Jim Risch (R-ID) ushered the legislation through the U.S. Senate after the House initially acted in June to pass nearly identical legislation (H.R. 2083) by a strong bipartisan vote, including the support of every House member from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
The legislation amends the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) providing a more streamlined process to effectively address excessive sea lion predation where the problem is most severe, including a large stretch of the river below Bonneville Dam, in the Willamette River, and in other tributaries.
Essentially, S.3119 allows the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and the Columbia River Treaty Tribes to apply for removal permits for California sea lions in the Columbia River main-stem above the I-205 bridge and in all tributaries of the Columbia below Bonneville. While the exact number of animals to be removed is subject to agency actions, it is almost certainly going to exceed the cumulative total of 139 animals removed by lethal injection between the years 2008-2016.
The California sea lion population has exploded to an estimated 300,000 animals, since the initiation of the MMPA by then President Nixon in 1972. In fact, the MMPA has worked so well that the population of these animals has been creeping towards carry capacity levels. As a result, sea lions have increasingly moved into rivers to feed, and salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon are being consumed at ever increasing levels. According to Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley’s office, up to 25% of certain Columbia River system salmon runs are consumed by sea lions in the lower Columbia River each year.
“Current law is failing wild and endangered Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead populations, some of which face an imminent risk of extinction if nothing is done to address the unnatural levels of sea lion predation and restore balance to this unique ecosystem,” said Gary Loomis, founder of Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) in the Pacific Northwest. “The legislation also passed with the bipartisan support of our Senators, U.S. Representatives, and a broad coalition of states, tribes, and organizations from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho – CCA was proud to be part of this coalition effort and is thankful for the years of efforts by our members in support of this legislation.”
Previous efforts to pass similar legislation have stalled in the U.S. Senate, but this year Senators from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho came together with Senators Cantwell and Risch to approve these important reforms. A diverse coalition coordinated their efforts to support the legislation, including the Columbia River Treaty Tribes, the Oregon, Washington and Idaho departments of fish and wildlife, several sportfishing and conservation groups including CCA, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, and many more.
The legislation gained broader support and momentum as the dire need for action was confirmed, including information presented from a recent Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) study finding that endangered Willamette River winter steelhead face a 90 percent chance of extinction if nothing is done to reduce sea lion predation in the Willamette River.
In fact, just a month before S.3119 became law, ODFW received permission from NOAA for “Section 120 Authority” to lethally remove a select number of sea lions observed eating ESA-listed fish at Willamette Falls. That’s the same provision that has been in use at Bonneville Dam, and it entails strict rules and enforcement only in close vicinity of the falls.
“The ODFW study detailing the dire condition of wild Willamette River steelhead due to excessive predation by sea lions certainly helped bring much more attention to the issue,” said Bruce Polley, Government Relations Committee chairman of CCA Oregon.” This issue has been a priority for CCA for many years and we are thankful that our wild fish are getting desperately needed relief from these un-natural levels of predation by sea lions.”
It should be noted, that while the Endangered Salmon & Fisheries Predation Prevention Act has become law, there is currently no funding in place for the program and permits to remove the animals still have to be issued by NOAA. Groups like CCA and others have turned their focus to securing funding to make these reforms a reality.
If not, many of these ESA-listed runs, already on the brink of extinction due to poor ocean conditions and overharvest, may not stand a chance under the current unnatural levels of predation by pinnipeds that they are subjected to.