Today, bipartisan legislation to build upon existing laws to manage the sea lion population passed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The legislation, proposed by U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R-ID) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) will give state and tribal fishery managers more flexibility to address predatory sea lions in the Columbia River system.
The Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, which helps protect endangered salmon and steelhead populations, passed without objection and will be considered next on the Senate floor. The bipartisan bill would allow wildlife agencies to better protect vulnerable fish populations through science-based management of these invasive, non-ESA listed sea lion populations, while also maintaining a strong Marine Mammal Protection Act that supports research, science-based management, and public process.
“Wild salmon are central to the culture, economy, and tribal treaty rights of the Pacific Northwest and protecting these fish is crucial to the health of Southern resident orcas,” said Senator Cantwell. “This science-based, bipartisan bill enhances existing tools that state and tribal wildlife managers need to address salmon predation, protect the health of sea lion stocks, and ensure that we are managing wildlife based on the best science available. Pacific salmon should be protected for generations to come.”
“Threatened and endangered species of salmon are being damaged by sea lions in the Columbia River, severely impacting Idaho’s efforts to restore the populations” said Senator Risch. “I’m grateful to Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Nelson for making this a committee priority and for quickly advancing our bill.”
Support for this legislation is bipartisan and crosses multiple Pacific Northwest states. The governors of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon wrote to the Northwest Senate delegation in support of the bill, and the four chairs of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission have all voiced their support. The National Congress of American Indians has called the legislation “essential” to protect salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon.
“Congressional action is critical to reducing the numbers of sea lions that prey on salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Bruce Botka. “We welcome the Senate’s progress and look forward to final passage of legislation that will enable the Northwest states and our tribal partners to better protect endangered fish.”
“We applaud the bi-partisan leadership of Senators Cantwell and Risch to get unanimous support today from the Senate Commerce Committee for S. 3119. The bill will expand the ongoing efforts of tribal and state co-managers who have collaborated both on the river and in Congress to address sea lion predation. This legislation reconciles two important conservation laws while it also recognizes the four treaty tribes expertise and role as caretakers of ancestral resources in the lower Columbia River basin,” said Jaime Pinkham, Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission
“This bill provides a thoughtful and practical approach to addressing sea lion predation in critical areas of the Columbia River,” said Guido Rahr, President of the Wild Salmon Center. “It also for the first time enables managers to respond before the number and habits of sea lions become an insurmountable problem for returning wild salmon and steelhead populations. Salmon recovery requires a multi-faceted response. We appreciate the leadership of Senator Cantwell on this issue.”
“Senator Cantwell has stepped up during a crisis and delivered a solution to prevent extinction of fragile Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead stocks. The businesses of NSIA are appreciative of the Senator’s leadership in resolving this very tough issue. All who care about salmon recovery, food for Southern Resident Killer Whales, and have jobs that depend on healthy fish stocks owe Senator Cantwell our deepest gratitude,” said Liz Hamilton, Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
“Sea lions are killing as many as 43 percent of the spring-migrating Chinook salmon in the Columbia River, including threatened and endangered species. This is an immediate problem that needs an immediate solution, a more streamlined and effective process for removing the most problematic sea lions,” said Guy Norman, a Washington member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.“The bill enables states and tribes to deal with a major bottleneck to salmon survival. It's a big win for the fish and for the people of the Northwest who are deeply invested in salmon recovery.
Federal, state, and tribal governments and other organizations have made significant conservation and restoration investments throughout the Pacific Northwest. Sea lion populations have increased significantly along the West Coast over the past 40 years; today, there are roughly 300,000. These sea lions have entered into habitat where they had never been before, including areas around the Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls.
A recent study by Oregon State University found that increasing predation from sea lions has decreased the fishery harvest of adult Chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest. According to the study, if sea lions continue their current salmon consumption habits, there is an 89 percent chance that a population of wild steelhead could go extinct. The study also noted that future long-term salmon management plans will need to address the increased salmon predation throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Companion legislation has already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.