Biologists Say Sea Lions are Eating Too Many Salmon

Sep 12, 2017

Biologists told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Spokane Tuesday that hungry California sea lions are devastating some Northwest salmon populations.
Credit L.A. Times

Biologists from Washington and Oregon today (Tuesday) gave a sobering assessment of the fate of salmon species that are being devoured in large numbers by California sea lions. The report came Tuesday at a meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Spokane.

California sea lions are officially protected as a federal endangered species, but biologists from both states say the population has rebounded. The animals can’t be killed without permission from the federal fisheries agency and the mammals have found a ready food source. Shawn Clements, a research scientist from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, say they’ve learned the best places to hang out until the fish arrive on their annual migration up the Columbia River.

“They’re smart animals. They’re social. So they transmit the behaviors and learn and share that this is a good place to come, so you get more and more animals over time," Clements said. "The increase this year was primarily due to the depressed runs, so they probably took about the same number of fish, but proportionally, it was a lot more.”

The area at the bottom of Bonneville Dam has long been a favored feeding place, but Clements says small numbers of sea lions are now chasing salmon up several of the river’s tributaries. He considers that a troubling development. He says non-lethal methods to scare them away haven’t worked.

Biologists and several members of the region’s Congressional delegation are seeking a political solution. Washington Republican Congresswoman Jamie Herrera Beutler’s bill that would allow up to 100 sea lions to be killed has been voted out of committee and sent to the full House. Supporters believe that if one of the region’s Democratic senators would introduce the bill in that chamber that it would have a good chance of becoming law.