ODFW eyes plan to trap, euthanize sea lions eating steelhead at Willamette Falls

California sea lions have preyed on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead at Bonneville Dam for years, as shown, and increasing numbers have moved up the Willamette River to similarly prey on fish at Willamette Falls. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

OREGON CITY, Ore. – Some unwanted visitors at Oregon City’s Willamette Falls are feasting on native steelhead populations, and now the state is looking at ways to keep them away.

Sea lions are a growing nuisance along the river. Through winter and spring, they camp out at Willamette Falls to hunt steelhead (a protected species) and sturgeon that are returning from the sea to spawn.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) said the sea lions ate 20 to 25 percent of all returning steelhead this year. It’s a problem that they say really only started about a decade ago.

Department biologist Dr. Shaun Clements tells KATU News that they are now considering an emergency permit to trap and euthanize the sea lions, and to make an addition to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows the agency to trap, transport and euthanize sea lions near Willamette Falls and upriver of river-mile 112 on the Columbia.

"What we're finding is that the sea lion population increased," Clements said under the protection act. "There is more of them moving to fresh water areas where it's relatively easy for them to prey on this fish at pinch points."

Such pinch points include Willamette Falls and Bonneville Dam.

On Thursday, Clements said counters tallied at least 11 sea lions at the falls. That number usually grows to 40 or 50 during peak fish runs in the spring.

The Association of Northwest Steelheaders Executive Director Bob Rees supports the state's proposal to remove sea lions from the area.

"These fish have to cross one of three fish ladders that exist at Willamette Falls. The sea lions are known to actually enter the fish ladder itself and predate on the fish," Rees told KATU's Chris Liedle. "If you're not passing a significant number of fish passed this pinch point, there is no way the run will be able to sustain itself over decades."

Environmental groups are concerned with the overall health of the river.

Native Fish Society Executive Director Mark Sherwood says he thinks state and federal agencies should think big picture, such as addressing water quality issues, degradation of fish habitat and fish passage through dams.

"We're not doing a lot of those really important things that will increase the number of fish coming back to the Willamette," Sherwood said. "We must focus on root causes, not symptomatic."

Those symptomatic causes Sherwood says played a role in how we got here.

Native Fish Society, along with other environmental partners -- Northwest Environmental Defense Centers and WildEarth Guardians -- gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a 60-day notice of intent to sue the agency for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) relating to its ownership, operation and maintenance of dams of the Willamette River Basin Flood Control Project that adversely impact threatened salmon and steelhead within the Willamette River Basin.

The Humane Society of the United States says killing sea lions won't address the real problems, which Sharon Young, the organization’s marine issues field’s director, says are dams and overfishing.

“Proposing to kill sea lions is like putting a bandage on a hemorrhage,” said Young. “It will divert attention from issues that need attention from issues that do need attention because it looks like they're doing something when you’re not doing much at all, except killing sea lions and wasting their lives for no good purpose.”

There’s a lengthy process to get the permit. By law the state has to document the impact the sea lions have on the habitat for three years. The sea lions are branded and tracked, and the ones that are killed are repeat offenders.

Clements says Fish & Wildlife attempted hazing projects to no avail, and the sea lions always returned. He says removing them from the river will reduce the number of sea lions who populate near the falls.

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