One of the most obvious, inexpensive and beneficial ways to help endangered salmon will begin in earnest this winter.
Some of the sea lions that travel far up the Columbia River to gorge on dwindling salmon and steelhead runs will be culled by a coalition of states and tribes in the river basin.
Congress and regulators made the right call in allowing this to happen.
Sea lions may eat up to 44% of the Columbia spring chinook run and 25% of the Willamette River winter steelhead run each year, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A federal permit issued last week rightly authorizes the removal of up to 540 California sea lions and 176 Steller sea lions over the next five years, though far fewer are expected to be taken.
This is enabled by legislation championed by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Vancouver Republican, and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Seattle Democrat. It was backed by Northwest governors, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
There is controversy with such programs. But it’s important to look at the bigger picture and what’s necessary to help a struggling ecosystem.
Sea lions are now so abundant they are pushing into new territory to forage, disrupting efforts to save other species from extinction. Since they fell under federal protection in 1972, the California sea lion population surged from around 30,000 to nearly 300,000.
Meanwhile, salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin are endangered or threatened. Billions of dollars have been spent to sustain these treasured fish populations, and billions more will be spent in years ahead. Both dollars and progress are lost if a substantial share of the fish are eaten by invasive sea lions.
The pinniped removal program is “a lever that hasn’t been pulled,” said Doug Hatch, senior fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Sea lions could be removed in the past through an overly cumbersome permitting process that required each to be tagged, repeatedly observed and resistant to hazing.
The legislation passed in 2018 amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, making an exception to help save Columbia River Basin fish runs.
Under a permit finally issued on Aug. 14, states and tribes may remove sea lions in the river between the Interstate 205 bridge and McNary Dam, as well as tributaries with spawning habitat for threatened or endangered salmon or steelhead.
The area includes places where salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and lamprey are particularly vulnerable to sea-lion predation because they are spawning or holding in their spawning migration at tributaries or below barriers, according to Oregon’s wildlife department.
Under the permit issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, humane practices must be used in removals.
The states — Washington, Oregon and Idaho — and tribes must also continue pursuing nonlethal ways to reduce sea-lion predation, monitor coastal Steller sea lion populations and develop a plan to prevent more from returning to the affected area.
Many challenges remain for salmon in the basin, including habitat loss, hydroelectric power system passage, hatchery practices and harvesting, Hatch noted, but removing these sea lions should quickly make a difference.
“We want to see balance restored to the system,” he said.
We do, too, and hope this sensible program is safe, effective and won’t be needed forever to increase survival of iconic Northwest species.