Efforts to reduce sea lion predation on ESA-listed Columbia River salmon and steelhead got a big boost today with the passage of a bill that would provide state and tribal managers more latitude to deal with the hungry pinnipeds.
HR 2083, introduced by a pair of Lower Columbia Congressmen from either side of the river and political aisle and which would allow sea lions to be culled in parts of the mainstem and its tribs to save fish, sailed out of the U.S. House of Representatives on a 288-116 vote this afternoon.
Cosponsors Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA3) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR5) were joined by every single one of their fellow Washington and Oregon representatives, as well as both of Idaho’s, in voting for the measure.
The move comes just days after similar legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate, making action now suddenly more likely after previous versions of the House bill had stalled.
Herrera Beutler said it was the result of a “team effort” and credited Schrader for getting the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act to a vote, Washington U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D) and Idaho U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R) for introducing one in the upper chamber, and “all the local and tribal agencies and fishermen who have trumpeted the plight of our salmon for years.”
Along with testimony from the Columbia River Inter-Tribe Fish Commission last year, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association has lent its strong support.
An exultant Liz Hamilton, NSIA’s executive director, called this “truly a good day for salmon, steelhead and sturgeon!”
She said lawmakers’ action offered “huge progress … giving fishery managers another tool to prevent extinction and help with recovery.”
Essentially, the bill would expand the scope of removals by, according to a Coastal Conservation Association of Washington press release, amending a portion of the “Marine Mammal Protection Act to authorize the Secretary of Commerce to provide states and local tribes the tools necessary to humanely manage sea lions on the waters of the Columbia River and its tributaries as long as the sea lions are not classified as an Endangered Species Act listed species.”
Between 2008 and 2016, as predation at Bonneville Dam increased, ODFW and WDFW were allowed by NOAA to remove 161 California sea lions, euthanizing 139 of those and finding zoos and aquariums for another 15.
But they’re smart critters and know where the food is at and readily return to unnatural pinchpoints.
In a joint letter, the heads of CRITFC, IDFG, ODFW and WDFW said passage of HR 2083 was “critical to ensuring we can manage the ever-increasing issue of predation on sturgeon, lamprey, and Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin,” according to a press release.
Back in April, ODFW took the strongest stance, specifically calling on Congress to act, pointing out that male sea lions gathering below Willamette Falls were driving the basin’s steelhead “closer to extinction,” not unlike what Herschel did at the Ballard Locks to Lake Washington’s stocks.
Earlier this year, federal researchers said that California sea lions had reached their “optimal sustainable population,” a triggering point in the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and a high enough level that West Coast states could begin to take over management.
“The California sea lion population has experienced a huge population recovery in recent years; unfortunately, that population has now grown to numbers totally inconsistent with its historic range, posing a very serious threat to the endangered salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia River system,” Rep. Schrader said in a press release.
Even as passage of HR 2083 put the focus on pinnipeds, that’s not to say that NOAA issuing one-year take permits to CRITFC, IDFG, ODFW, WDFW, and the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama and Cowlitz Tribes to take out up to 100 of the Chinook-, steelhead- and sturgeon-munching marine mammals is a be-all, end-all solution to fish run woes.
“Salmon recovery isn’t about just one issue, and the data is crystal clear that this [sea lion predation] is an important component, just as dam removal must be,” said angler Chase Gunnell, a Wild Steelhead Coalition boardmenber. “We can’t ignore the real short term threats from unnaturally high predation on endangered salmon and steelhead, even if Bonneville and other dams have exacerbated the situation. Pragmatic, strategic conservationists and wild fish and river advocates should celebrate this sensible policy, just as we should continue working to remove the lower Snake River Dams. It’s not either/or.”
But in the short term it is progress.
NSIA’s Hamilton thanked all three states’ Congressional delegations, especially Herrera Beutler and Schrader, and also urged fellow fishermen to show gratitude to their representatives.