Northwest fish advocates are waking up to some positive news this morning.
Federal legislation expanding sea lion removals in more of the Columbia and many of its tributaries became law yesterday, capping a multi-year, multi-stakeholder, bipartisan effort to reduce pinniped predation on ESA-listed salmon and steelhead as well as other stocks in the big river.
S.3119 gives the three Northwest states as well as the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Cowlitz Tribes, and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission up to five one-year permits to kill as many as 920 California sea lions and 249 Steller sea lions annually through an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Those figures represent the 10 percent potential biological removal, or PBR, levels for both species, according to WDFW’s Meagan West, the agency’s federal legislative coordinator.
“We anticipate lethal removal to be a lot lower,” she said, based on the number of sea lions that venture up the Columbia above river mile 112 and below McNary Dam and into salmon spawning tribs like the Cowlitz.
A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House last year, but following swift passage through the Senate and then the lower chamber of Congress earlier this month the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act was signed yesterday by President Trump, according to a bill announcement posted by the White House.
It was cosponsored by Idaho Sen. Jim Risch (R) and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell (D). The original House bill was put forth by Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-3) and Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-5), both of whom represent parts of the Lower and Middle Columbia.
Liz Hamilton at the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association in Portland said that with salmon recovery so complex, “to have one of the many moving parts moving in the right direction is so exciting.”
In 2014, an estimated 104,333 ESA-listed Upper Columbia spring Chinook were believed to have been eaten in the river by sea lions.
“Folks are recognizing we have a system that is out of balance,” Hamilton said.
WDFW’s West said that the permittees are starting to talk to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about how to streamline the process with as few applications as possible.
ODFW’s Dr. Shaun Clements says that because the way the bill is worded, Oregon will have to submit a separate one to meet tribal requirements.
They would then be reviewed by NOAA and through the National Environmental Policy Act.
With the bill signing, “We can start this process immediately now,” West said.
She praised the myriad stakeholders for coming together to work on passing a sea lion bill and said she was excited by the outcome.
“Really, really relieved it’s over the finish line,” added Clements. “We appreciate the efforts of the delegation.”
The permits are in addition to prior authorizations for the states to take out California sea lions at Bonneville Dam and ODFW at Willamette Falls.
Clements says that the bill will eventually supersede those because it covers the same areas.