ODFW: Surging sea lion population a major threat to Willamette s - KPTV - FOX 12

ODFW: Surging sea lion population a major threat to Willamette steelhead

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(courtesy Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife) (courtesy Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)
(KPTV) -

The Willamette River's native run of winter steelhead is in dire straits and near the brink of extinction, according to a report by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This summer, the agency released a report that included four years of data showing a steep decline in the river's steelhead run, which had only 512 native fish return this year, down from more than 15,000 in the early 2000s.

The agency identified the river's flourishing sea lion population as a major threat to the steelhead's existence.

"Since 2014 when we've been documenting it, they've been taking about 15 percent of the steelhead run," Dr. Shaun Clements, the agency's Senior Scientist and Policy Adviser, explained. “And then in 2017, that bumped up a lot to 25 percent, so a quarter of the run.”

Longtime fisherman Marvin Hinkel, who runs a guide service on the river, said the stretch of river just below Willamette Falls has changed almost beyond recognition.

"The steelhead don't have a chance to get by,” he said. “The sea lions are just sitting there. It's free game for them.”

Sea lions have been part of the river system since the late 1990s, but according to ODFW, their numbers have ballooned in the past 10 years, growing from roughly 30,000 of them on the coast to 300,000. This surge in population prompted more of the animals to move upriver in search of food.

"Ten years ago, if you saw four to five sea lions up here, it was crazy,” Hinkel said. “Now, in the springtime, there are hundreds.”

Travis Williams, Executive Director of Willamette Riverkeeper, acknowledged the sea lions are having an impact but also thinks the cause of the steelhead decline is more complicated.

"Let's not take this easy target as an animal out here and make that the scapegoat for what has happened to this entire fishery over many decades," he said.

Williams believes the decline of the steelhead population has more to do with decades of damage to the fish's habitat.

His organization has also sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to force the agency to stop releasing hatchery-raised steelhead in the upper Willamette, which could interfere with wild populations.

"The main questions are about genetic introgression and occupancy of the same habitat at the same times," Williams explained.

ODFW agrees there are other factors at play in the native steelhead's decline, like ocean conditions and the 2015 drought, but of all the factors, the agency believes sea lions could be the easiest to address.

Unfortunately, Clements said, the agency has little power to manage the animals because they are a protected species under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The agency is appealing to Oregon's congressional delegation to push for legislation that would allow the sea lion population to be reduced.

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