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Fins, Feathers and Fur: The Necessity of Predator Management to Conserve Wild Salmon

Coastal Conservation Association

The necessity of predator management on the Columbia River draws criticism in light of problematic conditions for conserving wild salmon. 

Whether you agree with predator management or not, pinnipeds are part of the equation for the disappearance of Columbia Salmon population, and lethal management methods have drawn a great deal of criticism. After subtracting known salmon takings including human harvest, nearly 45 percent of known salmon from the mouth of the Columbia River in the spring of 2014 went missing in the area from river mile 28 to river mile 146 (Bonneville Dam). The situation has not improved, and pinniped populations that have entered the Columbia River are continuing to grow. Let's do the math.

Aerial Photo by Steve Jefferies of WDFW
Aerial Photo by Steve Jefferies of WDFW

A male stellar sea lion can weigh up to 1,000lbs. They eat 4.5 percent of their body weight per day. The average spring chinook weighs 12lbs, so an adult male stellar sea lion could consume roughly four salmon per day. An article in the Daily Astorian by Edward Stratton cites WDFW biologist Steve Jeffries as saying it's not unusual to see 4,000 to 5,000 sea lions hauled out on Desdemona, between the Astoria Bridge and Hammond in the Columbia River, a fraction of the 15,000 regional population from Netarts north to Grays River, Wash.

Let's say 4,500 sea lions consume four salmon per day for a total of 18,000 and assume that half of those are hens carrying 4,500 eggs. That's 40,500,000 eggs that never get spawned. With a survival rate of less than .02 percent, that's 810,000 salmon that never hatch.

Then the ones that do face predators like Northern Pikeminnow in the river and avian predation from thousands of Cormorants near the mouth of the river, where they head out to sea to face a vast array of ocean predators. Not to mention that sturgeon, which take just over a dozen years to reach reproductive maturity and are listed under the Endangered Species Act, are also common meals for pinnipeds.

Sea Lion feasts on a white sturgeon (Photo courtesy of CCA)
Sea Lion feasts on a white sturgeon (Photo courtesy of CCA)

Many different tactics have been employed in the past to relocate and remove them with minimal success. I would recommend reading the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website's frequently asked questions before offering non-lethal suggestions in regards to managing pinniped predators. Everything from trapping and relocation to electrified mats on docks where these mammals perch and even placing "air dancers" on docks and towing a fiberglass replica of a killer whale to deter them from the river have been attempted.

An inter-tribal hazing boat works the upper river stretches using a cracker shell shot from a 12 gauge that is commonly known as a "seal bomb" to push them further downriver. In an April 2015 survey, the boat reported seeing nearly 100 near Bonneville Dam. The charges are waterproof pyrotechnics that shoot 20-30 yards before exploding with a little more force than a M80 firecracker on the surface of the water, and the hazing boat is not allowed to fire them directly at the sea lions.

The Endangered Species Act presents a responsibility to protect wild salmonids but clashes with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"This is something we think about deeply," said Chris Yates, an assistant regional administrator for NOAA. "When these two things start to conflict is when it gets really challenging."

Yakama Nation Tribal Members: Russell Jackson takes watch as Bobby Begay Navigates a Hazing Boat. (Photo courtesy of CRITFC)
Yakama Nation Tribal Members: Russell Jackson takes watch as Bobby Begay Navigates a Hazing Boat. (Photo courtesy of CRITFC)

Paul Lumley, Executive Director of the Intertribal Fish Commission was quoted in the Oregonian saying that

"The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act are thoughtful laws that need to be reconciled with one another."

Proposals to adopt new approaches would require tribal members to undergo training through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before resorting to bullets, as well as a secondary option to individual animals that have been unsuccessfully deterred by less-than-lethal practices.

A Sea Lion Predation Forum was held in Clackamette Park on May 30th 2015, led by the Coastal Conservation Association and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission to show support for U.S. Congressman Kurt Schrader's sponsorship of the Federal legislation.

"We know from experience that unchecked sea lion predation can wipe out an entire run of fish as they did to Lake Washington winter steelhead", said Carlos Smith, Chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We simply can't allow that to happen in the Columbia Basin. This problem can be addressed, but we need the right tools."

Photo by Theresa Tillson of ODFW
Photo by Theresa Tillson of ODFW

"Fifteen years ago it was extremely rare to see a sea lion at Bonneville Dam or Willamette Falls," said Bruce Polley, Vice President of the Coastal Conservation Association Oregon.  "The huge influx of sea lions entering the Columbia and Willamette and the resulting impacts on our fish populations is an unnatural and unprecedented threat.  We appreciate Congressman Schrader's leadership on H.R. 564 and urge the rest of Oregon's Congressional Delegation to support this needed legislation."

You can read the unedited press release from Predation Forum in full on my blog.

States need federal approval to manage pinnipeds, which was granted in 2008 for individual animals that meet the following criteria:

"The States (Oregon, Washington, and Idaho) may lethally remove individually identifiable predatory California sea lions that are having a significant negative impact on Endangered Species Act-listed salmonids that:

a) have been observed eating salmonids at Bonneville Dam, in the "observation area" below the dam, in the fish ladders, or above the dam, between January 1 and May 31 of any year;

b) have been observed at Bonneville Dam on a total of any 5 days (consecutive days, days within a single season, or days over multiple years) between January 1 and May 31 of any year; and

c) are sighted at Bonneville Dam after they have been subjected to active non­lethal deterrence."

Corps biologists began gathering data on sea lion predation at the dam in 2001, when six California sea lions were documented 140 miles upstream from the sea. During the first full season of monitoring in 2002, 30 sea lions were counted. By 2007, stellar sea lions began appearing at the Dam. The program was suspended in 2010 by a court order, and in the same year, 160 pinnipeds consumed an estimated 6,081 adult salmon, steelhead and sturgeon. NOAA Fisheries prevailed in a 2013 Ninth Circuit of Appeals that ruled in favor of continuation of culling as part of the management program.

Trapping and branding sea lions to track individuals began in 1997 to aid biologists in tracking their movements along the west coast within the Columbia River. A cage with a trap door remained open and empty for a majority of the time the first few years, but now is packed with so many that some have to be let out before the door to the trap can close. Biologists have discovered that individual sea lions that enter the Columbia can gain up to 400 pounds during the Spring Chinook run.

Dams present one of the largest obstacles to salmon populations by cutting off access to spawning habitat. They also present a unique opportunity for sea lions to exploit these man-made structures for an easy meal. Many of the few lethally managed sea lions had already been trapped, branded and relocated, but returned to the dams only to be trapped again. About 60 had been lethally removed up until 2014, as well as 13 more that were relocated to aquariums and zoos. As of mid-April, 10 have been lethally removed in 2016. Federal regulations allow Washington and Oregon to lethally remove up to 92 sea lions through June of 2016. Updates on trapping and euthanized sea lions are posted on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

Even with the amount of sea lions and observed predation at disturbingly record high numbers near Bonneville Dam, the majority of pinnipeds congregate on boat slips in Astoria that have become so inundated by their presence that they aren't usable anymore. The owners of these structures have seen a significant economic impact from being unable to rent their space to boaters.

The lethal management of cormorants has also drawn it's fair share of opposition. U.S. District Judge Michael Simon refused to block the plan in a decision on May 8th 2015, in spite of several groups seeking preliminary injunction arguing that the dams were a bigger threat to salmonids than the birds and filing lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Services agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Later in May, the Corps of Engineers released a report of its first management activity of 109 culled individual birds and 1,769 nests oiled (eggs are covered in a thin layer of mineral oil to prevent them from hatching). Updates of weekly management activities from the previous week are posted every Thursday at 9am on the Corps of Engineers website.

East Sand Island Cormorants (Photo courtesy of ODFW)
East Sand Island Cormorants (Photo courtesy of ODFW)

Conservation and animal rights groups geared towards protecting feathered birds and furry mammals make up a great deal of the criticism to predator management. However, there's a responsibility to protect the slimy, scaly salmon deep below the water's surface as well. One discrepancy in the push to move forward with these predator management programs is the lack of opposition to an existing bounty program for the Northern Pikeminnow.

While these groups are filing lawsuits against new programs set in place to manage birds and pinnipeds, the Columbia River Reward fishery has gone almost unnoticed while paying out the bounty on well over 4 million pikeminnow since 1990. If anything, this is evidence that sport angling conservationists are not the only group with a bias towards a particular group of animal species.

Guide Matt Halseth displays a Northern Pikeminnow
Guide Matt Halseth displays a Northern Pikeminnow

Although East Sand Island and Bonneville Dam are man-made structures that have adverse effects on predation, perhaps another man-made problem are the existing laws set in place by our colonized body of government. While to some it may seem barbaric to kill seals and sea lions, Pacific Northwest indigenous tribes have hunted these animals for centuries, not just for their pelts, but as a food source.

In 2014, Ellen Degeneres posted a selfie from the Oscars with a Samsung phone that became the most viewed photo on Twitter. As a gesture of appreciation, Samsung offered to make a donation to the charity of her choice. Degeneres made a statement in opposition to the tribal hunting rights of residents in Nanavut, as well as donations to the Humane Society in an effort to lobby against hunting seals, saying that:

"Seal hunting is one of the most atrocious and inhumane acts against animals allowed by any government."

An emotional response triggered by privilege and cultural appropriation began an Inuit campaign with the hashtag "#Sealfie," and additional hashtags #HuntSeal #WearSeal #EatSeal to put faces on the indigenous culture of seal harvest. In an article from the Pacific Standard, Kent Driscoll, the Iqaluit bureau reporter for Canada's APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network said,

"Seal is everything in Nunavut. It's one of the most widely available forms of wildlife. You can eat and use every part. The fur is incredibly warm."

He goes on to explain that seal is a renewable resource. While Nanavut may be across the border, it seems that the pinniped populations have boomed near the Columbia River since 1972 when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was signed into law by then President Richard Nixon.


It seems reasonable that if these animals are going to be lethally managed, it would honor their lives to allow tribal harvest by people who will make the most use of the resource, rather than treating it like a weed in the garden or a mouse in the kitchen. Either way, there's a historically cultural element missing from the management of these predators.

Much of the support for predator management comes from sport and commercial fisheries. While the Columbia River estuary's wild salmon are protected as a catch and release only fishery, hatchery supplemented fish create a massive industrial and economic force. Fish are becoming more commonly stolen from the line of anglers, causing guides to adapt by keeping their clients calm, quiet and seated while fighting fish, not reaching for a net until it's near the boat.

Hazing techniques have been outlined by NOAA for recreational anglers to deter pinnipeds from their gear as well. There have even been multiple reports in recent history of anglers displaying their catches for photos only to have them stolen by sea lions. In one case, a man was pulled overboard. Other incidents, such as a man and his stepson being tipped over on their stopped jet ski near Willamette Falls are becoming more commonplace.

Guide Bill Taylor of Osprey Guide Adventures leads clients to Spring Chinook on the Columbia River
Guide Bill Taylor of Osprey Guide Adventures leads clients to Spring Chinook on the Columbia River

Guide Bill Taylor of Osprey Guide Adventures spends a great deal on the Columbia and Willamette and has had first hand experiences with pinnipeds. When Bill was asked about how predation affects his business, he offered this:

"It is not about me, my customers, or catch rates. It is about salmon being pummeled by an overpopulation of recovered pinnipeds. It took an act of Congress to protect marine mammals. It will take an act of Congress to now bring the populations (of salmonids) to equilibrium levels. The poliitcal red tape seems insurmountable."

While anglers adhere to strict regulations that only allow the retention of hatchery origin fish, wild salmon intended for release are common meals for sea lions. Wild fish held over the side of the boat while the hooks are being removed, and tired fish released near the surface are easy meals. Hazing practices near Willamette Falls push sea lions from the barrier downriver into a crowded sport fishery.

Once enough observation data is collected they can request for the individual sea lions to be lethally removed. A monitoring project in 2014 revealed that sea lions at the falls consumed 13 percent of endangered wild steelhead stock. Sport-angling conservation group Coastal Conservation Association is filing petitions to support bi-partisan Federal sea lion legislation.

Steve Jefferies of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says,

"There are more sea lions than ever in the Columbia."

During 2015, unusually warm waters in the Eastern Pacific, from Mexico to Alaska, displaced bait fish populations the sea lions rely on as a food source. Many of these sea lions have come for the smelt and are staying for the spring salmon. In a spring 2015 article in the Seattle Times, Matt Tennis, a biologist with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission who has surveyed these animals for more than a decade says,

"We've never seen anything like this, all these new animals are moving in."


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Fins, Feathers and Fur: The Necessity of Predator Management to Conserve Wild Salmon