Sea lions wreaking havoc on the river
Bob Rees and Bill Hof stand at the edge of a slope on the dewy lawn that extends from the back door of Hof's Oak Grove home down to the Willamette River.
It's early, and the morning light reflects bright off the water as it illuminates the trees surrounding the water's edge. The only things making sounds are the river and a pair of Canadian geese that just landed nearby.
About 100 yards downstream sits an old man in a sled boat, patiently waiting for a nibble at the end of his lines. And about 30 yards past the old man, a brown head with bristle-like whiskers pokes up from under the water and surveys the scene.
"That looks like a California (sea lion)," Hof says.
"Yeah, the Steller sea lions are a lot bigger," Rees confirms.
Over the next 30 minutes, two more sea lions breach the water's surface, look around and dive back down — an increasingly common sight on the river these days.
As the executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Rees has a vested interested in these sea lions. Over the past several years, California and Steller sea lions that travel up the Willamette River in search of food have begun to threaten the populations of steelhead, salmon and sturgeon all along the river and its tributaries.
"The Steller sea lion population is just starting to blow up," Rees says. "Neither one of these species were a problem historically, because their populations weren't explosive as they are now, and they had plenty of food sources in other areas of the region."
Today, sea lions that once relied on large populations of offshore baitfish like anchovies and sardines are travelling vast distances to prey on salmon and steelhead that are waiting to get up the ladder at both the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and at Willamette Falls.
Several months ago, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife took data from the past 20 years of observing sea lions on the Willamette to compile a report on how their presence has affected the river's steelhead population. The analysis of that study, says ODFW spokesperson Rick Swart, found the sea lions have a high probability of causing the steelhead on the upper Willamette to go extinct.
"Nobody can give a definitive timeline," Swart says, "but it could be within our lifetime."
The sea lions travel from their breeding grounds hundreds of miles away in California to Willamette Falls, and they're arriving earlier and staying later, according to ODFW. As many as 41 sea lions were recorded near the falls on a single day in 2017, a major increase from 2-4 in the 1990s and 2000s.
Historically, more than 300,000 spring chinook salmon would return to the Willamette River each year. Today, less than 20,000 wild fish return to the Willamette, with between 30,000 and 70,000 hatchery fish released to supplement the annual run.
That's troublesome for both commercial and recreational anglers like Rees, who has fished the Willamette for more than 25 years and relies on the river's run of fish as a professional guide.
"People think this is about fishermen wanting to be able to take more fish, and that's not it at all," Hof says. "This is about preserving what we have so that my grandchildren and their children can continue to fish the same river and tributaries."
In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 restricted the "take" of marine mammals — including harassment, hunting, capturing, collecting or killing — in U.S. waters. But since 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries division has given approval to remove sea lions at the Bonneville Dam. Between 2008 and 2017, 190 California sea lions were removed from the Columbia River under Section 120 of the federal law — a provision that allows local fish and wildlife agencies to remove sea lions that have been observed preying on salmon.
Earlier this year, the first sea lions were captured and removed from the Willamette River and released at the Oregon coast near Newport. The problem with this method, though, is that it takes as little as 2-3 days for a sea lion to complete the swim up the mouth of the Columbia and back into the Willamette.
Rees and his organization would like to see one of two things happen. The first would be for NOAA to grant ODFW a permit to use lethal means to curtail the population of sea lions observed preying on salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.
The second would be to see the passage by Congress of a bill sponsored by Rep. Jamie Herrera-Beutler (R-Wash.); it would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to authorize NOAA to issue one-year permits allowing Washington, Oregon, Idaho and several local tribal organizations to kill certain sea lions in the Columbia River or its tributaries in order to protect fish from sea lion predation.
To promote both of these causes, Rees and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders are currently circulating an online petition calling on Oregon and the federal government to adopt policies and implement meaningful measures that ensure a future for Willamette Valley salmon and steelhead.
If nothing happens, Swart says, the result could mean the extinction of wild steelhead or salmon in the Willamette River.
"We very well might have one less species of migratory wild fish in Oregon," Swart says. "That's a catastrophe from a fish-and-wildlife management perspective. It's a fishery biologist's worst nightmare. Oregon has a strong heritage of these magnificent fish runs, and we want to keep them around."
For more information about the online petition, visit www.nwsteelheaders.org/conservation/questfor100k.