Sea lions to be culled to protect salmon

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is accepting public comments on a new plan to cull sea lions on the Columbia River, along the Oregon-Washington border, in order to benefit populations of salmon and steelhead, which have been falling in recent years.

Current management policy allows up to 92 California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) to be culled each year at Bonneville Dam, although managers have never reached the limit. The new plan would increase sea lion removal limits to more than 1,000 annually — up to 900 California sea lions and 250 Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) — along a stretch of the river starting 112 miles inland from the river’s mouth and extending upstream to McNary Dam at river mile 292. In that area, sea lions exclusively prey on salmon and steelhead, mostly at dams where the fish are easy to catch as they migrate upstream.

Under existing management, California sea lions are captured at Bonneville Dam by state and federal employees and euthanized off-site. The new plan would also allow tribes to remove sea lions and expand the sites from which sea lions will be removed. NOAA developed the plan at the request of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Native American tribes.

Thirteen species of Columbia basin salmon and steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act. State and federal agencies, tribes and partner organizations have spent billions of dollars over the past few decades on various efforts to recover the populations, including habitat restoration and fish passage at dams, in addition to sea lion removals.

NOAA estimates that sea lions consume nearly 10,000 adult spring Chinook salmon a year, more than 3% of returning adult fish. Overall, NOAA believes that approximately 25 to 35% of the fish consumed by sea lion are listed under the ESA. Removals efforts have been underway since 2008. In 2016, NOAA estimated that removals at Bonneville Dam between 2008 and 2016 prevented the loss of 15,000 to 20,000 salmon and steelhead.

While it can be controversial, prevention or control of wildlife damage, which often includes removal of the animals responsible for the damage, is an essential and responsible part of wildlife management, as noted in The Wildlife Society’s standing position on Wildlife Damage Management.

The plight of Columbia River salmon and steelheads has also gained Congressional attention in recent years, with legislation introduced during the last Congress to increase the numbers of California sea lions culled each year at Bonneville Dam. That bill passed the House of Representatives but did not pass the Senate before the end of the 115th Congress.

NOAA is taking public comment on the plan through Oct. 29.

Read The Wildlife Society’s Standing Position Statement on Wildlife Damage Management.

Header Image: More sea lions could be culled under a new plan to protect salmon and steelhead along the Columbia River.