NOAA Fisheries Authorizes Expanded Lethal Removal Of Salmon-Eating Sea Lions In Columbia River From Portland To McNary Dam, Tributaries

States and tribes can lethally remove up to 540 California sea lions and 176 Steller sea lions over the next five years from a management zone on the Columbia River and its tributaries where they prey on at-risk salmon, steelhead, lamprey, sturgeon, and eulachon, under a new authorization issued today by NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region.

The approval provides more flexibility in managing sea lion impacts on salmon and steelhead.

“Under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act ,  thousands of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead have been protected from predation,” said NOAA Fisheries today in announcing the authorization.

Previously sea lion removal was only allowed at Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls in Oregon.

The Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act amended the MMPA in 2018. It allowed removal of sea lions from a stretch of the Columbia River between the I-205 bridge on Portland’s east side and McNary Dam. The amendments also allow removal of sea lions from tributaries of the Columbia River below McNary Dam with spawning habitat of threatened or endangered salmon or steelhead.

Studies indicate that sea lions may remove large proportions of migrating salmon and steelhead. Their total consumption has been estimated at more than 10,000 salmon and steelhead in some years.

“This is one element of a comprehensive strategy that also addresses impacts at dams, hatcheries, and through harvest,” said Chris Yates, Assistant Regional Administrator for Protected Resources in the West Coast Region. “Removing sea lions is not anyone’s first choice, but this provides the states and tribes flexibility to manage these impacts.”

As the MMPA requires, NOAA Fisheries earlier this year convened a Task Force to review the application and provide a recommendation. The Task Force is made up of representatives from federal and state agencies, tribes, and conservation and fishing organizations. The Task Force recommended that NOAA Fisheries approve the application and grant the new authorization.

Applicants for the authorization were:

The states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho

The Nez Perce Tribe

Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

Yakama Nation

Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs

The approval also includes tribes that help manage sea lion impacts on the Willamette River.

The authorization allows for removal of up to 540 California sea lions and 176 Steller sea lions over the next five years. The numbers are based on:

–Recommendations from the Task Force

–Information in the application describing the risk to salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and eulachon

–Expected benefits to these fish from sea lion removals

–Unless a zoo or aquarium is interested in taking the sea lions that are removed, they are humanely euthanized.

Bounties and market hunting once drove California sea lions toward extinction, but they rebounded under the protection of the MMPA, now numbering more than 250,000. The eastern stock of Steller sea lions has also increased over the last decade to more than 70,000 animals.

Data shows that sea lions can consume significant numbers of fish—up to 44 percent of the Columbia River spring chinook run and 25 percent of the Willamette winter steelhead run each year.

The new permit issued creates “safe zones” for fish by giving managers from the tribes and states the authority to remove, via humane euthanasia, both California and Steller sea lions that attempt to prey on fish in certain areas, said the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife today.

“These safe zones include locations where ESA listed salmon and steelhead, sturgeon, lamprey and eulachon are especially vulnerable to sea lion predation because they are either spawning, or temporarily holding in their spawning migration at the mouth of smaller tributaries or below barriers like Willamette Falls and Bonneville Dam.”

“This is a really big step in finally allowing us to get on top of a problem that has been building in the region since the 1990s,” said Dr. Shaun Clements, ODFW Senior Policy Analyst.

Sea lion management in the Columbia River Basin is nothing new and has been ongoing for over a decade, noted ODFW. “But previously the states were only able to remove California sea lions at two locations—and only then after spending years documenting predation, meeting multiple criteria for removal of individual sea lions, as well as expending considerable effort with non-lethal methods such as relocation and hazing that have largely proved futile.”

“We deeply appreciate the leadership of the Northwest congressional delegation to amend the MMPA to better balance the conservation of fish and sea lions,” said Clements.

ODFW, the other states and the six tribes submitted an application to NOAA Fisheries under the new provision in mid-2019. Since that time, NOAA has taken public comment on the proposal, reviewed it for compliance with NEPA, and held a public taskforce hearing that included representatives from the states and tribes, marine mammal experts, and conservation and angling groups. During the meeting in May this year the taskforce voted to approve the application.

ODFW along with the co-applicants that include WDFW, IDFG, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community, and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians of Oregon will now move forward on jointly implementing the permit, though efforts this year will have to be scaled back because of COVID-19.

“We know that this action alone isn’t a going to restore healthy runs, but it is a critical piece of the recovery picture,” said Clements. “We don’t have to look far to see what happens when the situation isn’t managed, such as at Ballard Locks. Fish can be especially vulnerable when they congregate in a concentrated area, and taking this action will help address that vulnerability.” (A small group of California sea lions wiped out Lake Washington’s native steelhead population by preying on them while they congregated below Ballard Locks in the 1980s.)

Pointing to the positive impact removals can have, Clements noted that ODFW removed 33 sea lions at Willamette Falls in 2019, which reduced predation from previous highs of 21-25 percent of the adult spawning run to just 1-2 percent in 2020.

“By removing those animals, we allowed over 1,300 extra winter steelhead to reach the spawning grounds this year. Compare that to 2017, when only 512 fish made it over Willamette Falls and the population was on the brink of extinction,” continued Clements. “It is really heartening to see the numbers trending upwards. We hope to have a similar impact across the basin with this new permit and give these runs the breathing room they need to recover.” 

The states and tribes estimate that there may be up to 290 California sea lions and 130 Steller sea lions using these areas which is less than 0.1 percent and 0.18 percent of the total population, respectively.

The expanded removals could begin as early as this fall, said Kessina Lee, Southwest region director with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

“Sea lions traveling up the Columbia have had a detrimental impact on already-troubled salmon and steelhead populations, and this permit represents a significant step forward in our ability to give these fish species an immediate boost to increase survival while we continue working on long-term solutions,” Lee said. 

The Washington Legislature this spring approved additional funding to expand these operations to protect salmon and steelhead and provide benefit to the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which rely on salmon as a key part of their diet. 

The additional funding was contingent on approval of the permit by NMFS.  

“We don’t expect this program to solve the problem on its own,” Lee said, “but it represents one more tool in the toolbox as we continue working to also restore habitat, manage hatcheries and fish harvest, and develop hydropower policy.” 

Though managers have carried out lethal removals of California sea lions on the Columbia River for years, the new permit represents the first time Steller sea lions may also be removed.  

Also see:



— CBB, June 20, 2019, “States, Tribes Seek NOAA Permit To Expand Lethal Removal Of Sea Lions From Columbia River, Tributaries; Could Allow Euthanizing Up To 400 Animals Feeding On ESA Salmon, Sturgeon,”

— CBB, May 23, 2019, “Oregon Removes, Euthanizes 33 California Sea Lions At Willamette Falls, Wild Winter Steelhead Run Up Considerably,”

— CBB, January 11, 2019, “With new permit, Oregon begins lethally removing sea lions at Willamette Falls to Protect Steelhead,”

— CBB, December 14, 2018, “Legislation Awaiting President’s Signature Would Allow Significant Increase In Killing Of Salmon-Eating Sea Lions,”

— CBB, November 20, 2018, “Oregon Plan To Euthanize Sea Lions At Willamette Falls Approved By NOAA Fisheries,”

–CBB, August 17, 2018, “Willamette Falls Sea Lion Task Force Meets Three Days Next Week To Review Lethal Removal Request,”

— CBB, March 16, 2018, “Corps Report: Pinniped Predation Consumed 4.7 Percent Of Salmonids In 2017 In Bonneville Tailwater,”

–CBB, January 19, 2018, “West Coast California Sea Lion Population Has Rebounded; Meets Marine Mammal Protection Act Goal,”

–CBB, August 11, 2017, “ODFW Analysis: With Continued Sea Lion Predation Willamette Winter Steelhead At Risk Of Extinction,”

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