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California sea lion eating a salmon

Non-lethal hazing is primarily done from a boat (sled) near the Willamette Falls. Willamette River

California sea lion eating a salmon
California sea lion eating a salmon
Willamette Falls
Willamette Falls
California sea lion eating a salmon
California sea lions have been feeding on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the waters below Willamette Falls.

California Sea Lion Management

Restoring balance between predators and salmon

Columbia River salmon and steelhead face a serious threat from California sea lions that prey on fish waiting to move up the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam in early spring. Each year since 2002, sea lions have consumed thousands of migrating fish, many from threatened and endangered runs protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act recognizes that predation by a growing sea lion population can jeopardize salmon and steelhead stocks at risk of extinction. Wildlife managers from Washington and Oregon have worked with federal and tribal partners to chase sea lions away from the area immediately below Bonneville Dam. But these efforts, alone, have not proven effective in curbing salmon predation by a robust population of California sea lions.

In March 2008, fish and wildlife agencies in Washington, Oregon and Idaho received federal authorization to remove California sea lions that have been observed preying on salmon and steelhead below Bonneville Dam. The federal authorization allows wildlife managers to use lethal measures to remove sea lions that meet specific criteria, although the states’ first priority has been to relocate them to zoos and aquariums.

Removal of problem sea lions continues to be the most effective means of protecting fish from their predation. While exclusion gates keep sea lions out of the fishways, other non-lethal deterrents (pyrotechnics and rubber buckshot) fired at them have only a temporary effect. For several years the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife have staffed a branding and removal program for problem California sea lions.

From 2008 to 2016 a total of 166 California sea lions were removed from the Columbia River:  15 were placed in permanent captivity, 7 died in accidents incidental to trapping, and the remainder were chemically euthanized.

NOAA’s guidelines for sea lion deterrence

Learn more about why California sea lions are being removed from the Columbia River (pdf)

Summaries of sea lion trapping

Section 120 Authority to remove sea lions

In March 2012, NOAA Marine Fisheries issued a letter authorizing (pdf) the states to remove specific California sea lions eating threatened salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River. That authorization expired in June 2016 but was renewed for another five years until June 30, 2021. The authorization allows the states to remove up to 93 California sea lions a year; these animals must meet the following criteria:

  • Must be individually identifiable through natural or applied features (usually a brand)
  • Have been observed eating salmonids in the Bonneville Dam area between Jan. 1 and May 31 of any year
  • Have been observed on a total of any five days (consecutive days, days within a single season, or days over multiple years) between Jan. 1 and May 31
  • Have been subjected to but not responded to non-lethal hazing

Visit the NOAA Marine Fisheries Website for more information about the Section 120 application and authorization.

Pinniped Branding on the West Coast (pdf)

Willamette River

California sea lion predation has been identified as a concern in the Upper Willamette River Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Plan, which describes the many factors having a negative impact on salmon and steelhead populations in the basin.

ODFW conducted non-lethal hazing of sea lions in 2010, 2011, and 2013 in an attempt to deter sea lions from foraging near the Willamette Falls fishway ladder entrances.  After hazing proved to be of limited success the agency shifted resources to rigorously monitoring sea lion abundance and predation in order to document the extent of the problem.  Summaries of those monitoring efforts in 2014-2016 are below:

The results from the 2016 monitoring efforts can be found in this report (pdf). Highlights from this report include:

  • Based on 17 weeks of observation from February 1 to May 29, an estimated 4,600 salmonids (+/-900) were taken by sea lions immediately below the falls (and potentially an additional 2,900 salmonids further downriver).
  • Based on run proportions at the fish-counting window, it was estimated that approximately 900 listed winter steelhead were taken by sea lions immediately below the falls (or 14 percent of the potential escarpment above the falls) and 650 listed wild spring Chinook (or 9 percent of potential escapement).
  • Estimated predation is known to be an undercount because observations started after sea lions had already arrived in February and estimates only applied to daylight hours starting at 6-8 am and ending at 5-7 pm.

The results from the 2015 monitoring efforts can be found in this report (pdf). Highlights from this report include:

  • Based on 16 weeks of observation from February 9 to May 31, an estimated 5,800 salmonids (+/-700) were taken by sea lions, as well as 800 lamprey and 34 sturgeon.
  • Based on run proportions at the fish-counting window, it was estimated that approximately 500 listed winter steelhead were taken by sea lions (or 10 percent of the potential escarpment above the falls) and 950 listed wild spring Chinook (or 10 percent of potential escapement).

The results from the 2014 monitoring efforts can be found in this report (pdf). Highlights from this report include:

  • Based on 13 weeks of observation from March 3 to June 1, an estimated 3,700 salmonids (+/-400) were taken by sea lions, as well as 500 lamprey and 60 sturgeon.
  • Based on run proportions at the fish-counting window, it was estimated that approximately 800 listed winter steelhead were taken by sea lions (or 13 percent of the potential escarpment above the falls) and over 500 listed wild spring Chinook (or 8 percent of potential escapement).
  • Estimated predation is known to be an undercount because observations started after sea lions had already arrived in February and estimates only applied to daylight hours from 7 am to 6 pm.

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