Federal officials on Friday approved the killing of hundreds of sea lions on and near the Columbia River to help protect endangered salmon.
It marks the biggest expansion yet of a strategy to save one protected species from extinction by killing another. For the first time, Steller sea lions join California sea lions as fair game for what the government is calling “lethal control.” And individual sea lions no longer need to be documented as salmon predators before they can be killed; just being in the nearly 200-mile stretch of the Columbia and its tributaries subjects a sea lion to being killed, under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration policy.
The targeted area runs up the Columbia River from the Interstate 205 bridge to the McNary Dam, as well as any tributaries. The permit also includes any area with spawning habitats of threatened or endangered salmon.
In June 2019, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho state agencies, along with Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, submitted an application requesting a permit to lethally remove sea lions in the Columbia River Basin as salmon populations were dropping. The purpose is to protect endangered salmon and other fish from sea lion predation.
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, sea lions can consume up to 44% of the Columbia River’s spring Chinook salmon run and 25% of the Willamette winter steelhead run each year.
In May, a task force was established to review the application and make recommendations on the request for lethal removal of sea lions
ODFW Senior Policy Analyst Shaun Clements was also part of a task force and said the new process provides more flexibility for removal.
“If we were following the old model, we would have had to collect data for ten or so years and wait for the situation to be a bigger issue before we can even apply for a permit,” Clements said. “Under this system, if we see animals moving up there and it looks like it’s trending towards them habituating there, we can remove them.”
There are no other other criteria to meet before killing a sea lion, “other than the animal being in the area,” Clements said. “You no longer have to prove they are having a significant negative impact.”
Clements said the application for the permit reflects all the previously-collected data over the past 20 years, showing that sea lions have had a negative impact in these areas.
The eligible entities or permit applicants may not remove more than 540 California sea lions and no more than 176 Steller sea lions during this five-year period. Combining all sea lion permit removals, it may not exceed 10% of the potential biological removal or population of the species.
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s Senior Fisheries Scientist Doug Hatch said many different methods have been used in the past to remove sea lions in the area, methods like capturing the mammals and transporting them to other locations or hazing them. But he said the marine mammals come back within a matter of days. And in recent years, more Steller sea lions have been showing up and staying for longer periods of time, some as long as 9 months out of the year.
Hatch said the number of sea lions targeted for lethal removal may seem high, but he doesn’t expect it will be reached. Killing sea lions up the Columbia River is not expected to affect the reproductive rate of future generations because only males are known to venture upriver for salmon and steelhead.
“So you’re not impacting the population growth of one species and we are going to enhance the population growth of another species that is at far more risk,” Hatch said.
Hatch said on average there are about 100 sea lions in the area, and he does not expect the removals to come close to the limit.
The permit for removal took effect Friday and runs through Aug. 14, 2025.