NOAA Fisheries seeks input on proposed sea lion removal at Willamette Falls

November 2017

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public input on an application from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to remove, by lethal means if necessary, California sea lions preying on endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead at Willamette Falls on the Willamette River near Oregon City.

The approach would be similar to the ongoing removal of sea lions preying on vulnerable populations of protected fish at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.  Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), each application NOAA Fisheries receives for removing problematic sea lions must undergo independent consideration.

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

The first step in this review process is the formation by NOAA Fisheries of a Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force that will include scientists, tribes, and representatives of fishing and conservation groups.  The Task Force will provide NOAA Fisheries with a recommendation on whether the Agency should approve Oregon’s request as described in its application. In a Federal Register notice published this week, NOAA Fisheries invited nominations for the Task Force and is also seeking public input on the impact of sea lion predation on at-risk fish near Willamette Falls.

“We’re particularly interested in hearing from people who have experience and observations involving sea lions on the Willamette River, who know when and where these animals spend time, and can offer insights into the magnitude of the problem,” said Robert Anderson, Acting Branch Chief for Protected Resources in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region.

The State of Oregon’s proposal is part of a comprehensive effort to protect and recover endangered and threatened Willamette River salmon and steelhead that also includes habitat restoration, fish passage improvements at dams, and management of predators that include sea lions as well as seabirds.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has applied to NOAA Fisheries for authorization to remove sea lions preying on imperiled salmon and steelhead at Willamette Falls near Oregon City. The approach would be similar to removal of sea lions preying on fish at Bonneville Dam, as shown. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Under MMPA protection, the California sea lion population is healthy and flourishing along the West Coast, numbering more than 250,000 animals.

ODFW has tracked the presence of California sea lions at Willamette Falls for more than a decade. This data was provided in the State’s October application to NOAA Fisheries for authorization to begin a removal program. According to their data, the single-day maximum count of sea lions at Willamette Falls has increased from 27 in 2014 to at least 40 in 2017.

State fisheries officials also tracked predation by the sea lions on Willamette River salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. In 2014, the State reported that sea lions consumed an estimated 780 wild Upper Willamette River steelhead and 496 wild Upper Willamette River Chinook salmon, which represented 12 percent and 7 percent of the total returns for those species that year, respectively.

In 2017, a leaner year for salmon returns, sea lions consumed an estimated 270 wild steelhead and 399 Chinook salmon, representing 25 percent and 6 percent of the returns of each species for the year, respectively. According to the State’s calculations, continued predation at such rates could ultimately drive at least some of the runs to extinction.

Removal of sea lions preying on the vulnerable fish would reduce that risk of extinction, ODFW biologists estimate.

In formulating a recommendation to NOAA Fisheries on the State’s request, the Task Force will examine the data and estimates provided in Oregon’s application, as well as other information submitted by the public to NOAA Fisheries during this comment period.

Nominations for the Task Force and other pertinent information regarding sea lions, as described in the Federal Register Notice, at Willamette Falls should be submitted to NOAA Fisheries either electronically through regulations.gov or by mail at National Marine Fisheries Service, 1201 NE Lloyd Blvd, Suite 1100, Portland, OR 97232, ATTN: Protected Resources Division, Portland Branch Chief, NOAA-NMFS-2017-0126, by January 8, 2018.

For more information on California sea lions on the West Coast, please visit:

www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/authorized_states.html

Home page photo: Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers