For years, hundreds of California sea lions have colonized the docks in the Oregon port town of Astoria, their loafing brown bodies serving as both a tourist attraction and a nuisance begrudgingly tolerated by officials. Authorities have deployed deterrents — including beach balls, electrified mats and a mechanical orca — in futile attempts to scare off the pinnipeds without harming them, because they are protected under federal law.
But when it comes to sea lions that swim their way from the coast to inland rivers, Oregon officials are no longer feeling so indulgent. After years of nonlethal hazing efforts, the state wildlife agency is now seeking permission to kill them.
The sea lions are a target because of their voracious appetite for threatened and endangered fish. They gobble up so many winter steelhead at Willamette Falls, south of Portland, that state biologists say there’s a 90 percent chance the fish run will go extinct. If granted a special permit from the federal government, Oregon could trap and kill as many as 92 sea lions at the falls each year.
The conflict pits one protected species against another in an unusual battle that kill-plan proponents say is lopsided in favor of a thriving predator and that opponents say makes the species a scapegoat. Although hunting, bounties, habitat loss and pollutants caused the California sea lions’ population to drop below 90,000 in the 1970s, it has steadily risen since the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and now numbers nearly 300,000, or what the act calls “optimum sustainable population.” With the increase of the hulking animals has come tension over resources from beaches to fish.
“The real issue from our standpoint is just trying to find a balance,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a veterinarian who co-sponsored legislation that would make it easier for Oregon, Washington, Idaho and tribes each year to kill more than 900 sea lions that dine on protected fish in rivers. The prospect of losing the steelhead run, Schrader added, is “just unacceptable to this veterinarian. I love animals, but fish are animals, too.”
Although they are marine mammals, California sea lions have proved to be able freshwater inhabitants. After spending the summer breeding in Southern California, the 700-pound males typically voyage up the coast in the late summer or autumn and stay until May. While there, a few dozen adventurous individuals speed up the cool waterways of the Columbia River along the border of Oregon and Washington, hang a right at the Willamette and then park below Willamette Falls, a U-shaped cascade where Chinook salmon and steelhead stall while waiting their turn at the fish ladder they use to reach upriver spawning grounds.
For sea lions, the spot is a sashimi bar. According to a 2017 state report, more than 15,000 winter steelhead were making it over the falls 15 years ago. This winter, about 1,000 did — more than the record low of 512 in 2017, but still the second-lowest number ever counted, said Shaun Clements, a senior policy adviser for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. At least 25 percent of the run this year was eaten by sea lions, the agency says.
The pinnipeds at the falls are also eating Chinook salmon in the spring, Clements said, and sea lions have begun to be spotted in other Columbia river tributaries with fragile fish populations.
“The Pacific Northwest is known for its salmon and steelhead runs. They’re an iconic species here,” he noted. “It’s important to the people of the northwest to have them around … and it’s our agency’s role to make sure they’re still around.”
The state’s proposal follows nonlethal efforts to haze sea lions with firecrackers and rubber bullets, methods that “they basically just habituate to,” Clements said. Earlier this year, the state carried out an elaborate trap-and-release operation, capturing 11 sea lions when they hauled out to sunbathe on specially placed docks, trucking them 2½ hours to the coast and then letting them loose.
It didn’t work. Each relocated sea lion — which had been marked with brands, shavings or flipper tags — made its way back to Willamette Falls in less than a week. One was relocated and returned twice. “It’s just not a long-term solution,” Clements said.
The agency is confident that taking out the sea lions that have figured out the route to the falls — about 40 of them were spotted there this winter — would curb the problem, because those animals would no longer be able to “share this knowledge with their friends,” as Clements put it.
The Humane Society of the United States is dubious. In public comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will rule on the state’s permit application, the organization pointed to the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia. For a decade, Oregon and Washington have been authorized to trap and kill sea lions there to save protected fish. Yet removed sea lions “are rapidly replaced by others,” Humane Society Marine Wildlife Field Director Sharon Young wrote, “since the situation that attracted predators remains unchanged,” resulting in an “endless and ineffective treadmill of death.”
The Humane Society and other opponents say Oregon’s focus on the sea lions plays down the effects of events that landed the fish on the Endangered Species List — habitat loss and dams that block migration — as well as competition from hatchery fish.
“Frankly, it is a bit disingenuous to place an undue amount of emphasis on sea lions,” Travis Williams, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, said in a statement last year. “It has been nearly 20 years since winter steelhead were listed, and [the wildlife agency] doesn’t really seem to reflect that in their recent PR effort regarding sea lions.”
The decision on Oregon’s application is unlikely to come until later this year, at the earliest. The proposed congressional legislation, which has bipartisan support in the House and Senate, and has been backed by tribes, sport-fishing organizations and some newspaper editorial boards in the Pacific Northwest, could lead to earlier action, although the measure hasn’t made it past the Senate in previous sessions.
“This is not like we’re going to wipe out sea lions or open a hunting season,” Schrader said of the bill. “It’s about targeted involvement at a critical time.”