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When Is 2% Greater Than 33%?

It might seem contradictory for an organization with our name and mission to take a stance that protects sea lions that kill wild salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon.  It was only after considerable deliberation that we entered into a lawsuit with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to stop the lethal removal of Marine Mammal Act-protected California sea lions (CSL) from the area around the Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River.

CA sea lion

Wild Fish Conservancy is a science-based conservation ecology organization. Wild fish are our client, and we use science to understand their needs, and education and advocacy, including litigation if necessary, to secure those needs.  This sea lion case is no exception to that approach.  While Columbia River sea lions that congregate at Bonneville clearly do kill wild fish, the science is clear that the current strategy for sea lion removal will not result in any meaningful benefit. State and federal agencies developed this current sea lion removal strategy to appease vocal fishermen, knowing quite well that their strategy was not scientifically defensible.  

Given the clamor surrounding sea lions, you might guess that sea lions are the most significant source of returning salmon mortality that managers can address. Guess again. The percentage of returning upper Columbia River spring Chinook salmon consumed by California sea lions since 2002, when CSL were first documented at Bonneville Dam, averages only 2.1% each year.  Average human harvest (commercial, tribal, and sport fishing) within the Columbia in the same time period killed 10.6% of the Chinook each year, while dams on the Columbia and its tributaries are killing 21.9% of returning fish. The graphic below puts this into perspective - click to enlarge.

CSL - upper columbis chinook avg loss

Combined, harvest and dams in the Columbia kill over twenty times the number of returning ESA-listed upper Columbia Spring Chinook salmon - salmon that have already been subjected to and survived extensive ocean fisheries - than do California sea lions.  Meanwhile, according to NOAA, the 2.1% taken by California sea lions is impeding recovery, and it must stop. Using NOAA’s calculator, two percent is greater than eleven or twenty-two or even thirty-three percent.  

In the Columbia, the overwhelming majority of commercial and tribal fisheries use nonselective fishing gear, such as gill-nets, that has a very high mortality rate on the target and non-target fish encountered. NOAA could require selective fishing gear for all fisheries, and this would significantly reduce the impact to wild fish while increasing the harvest of hatchery fish. Greater employment of selective fishing gear and techniques would result in a long-term significant and meaningful benefit to wild fish recovery.

Marine mammal experts agree that removing Columbia River sea lions will be an endless and ineffective task as those removed are replaced by others. Dams and inadequate fish ladders are at fault by creating bottlenecks to fish migration and thus, the opportunities for intelligent predators.

When we see agencies expend such a large effort to assess salmon mortality and then conclude that sea lions must die to protect salmon, we cannot help but conclude that the issue is simply political and media theater.  It is designed to give the public and vocal fishing groups the false perception that the agencies have taken significant steps to protect our fish when readily-available selective harvest methods remain optional. Red herrings like blaming sea lions for impeding wild salmon recovery take funding, energy, and the public’s attention away from the scientifically-defensible recovery actions on which the agencies should be focused.


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