Contributed photo/Phil Green A harbor seal eats salmon in the San Juan Channel.

Contributed photo/Phil Green A harbor seal eats salmon in the San Juan Channel.

What will it take to save the Chinook?

Once weighing approximately 120 pounds, Chinook salmon reach only half that size today and are critically endangered. Southern resident orcas are struggling too because, researchers say, Chinook is their primary food source. Lawmakers are scrambling to save both species.

“We need effective action now,” said Jacques White, Director of Long Live the Kings, a Seattle-based organization working to save salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest.

White has also been appointed as a member of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

“We don’t have the luxury of time,” he said, explaining that the task force has been moving as quickly as possible, wrestling with the array of controversial and complex issues threatening salmon and whales, including vessel traffic noise, overfishing, pollution and dams.

Dams create several issues for salmon, one because they can’t swim over them. Salmon slow down to jump over fish ladders which attract predators like sea lions, a type of pinniped. Columbia River’s massive Bonneville dam is one example. For years government agencies have been discouraging the pinnipeds, also known as carnivorous aquatic mammals, with firecrackers, blockades, rubber bullets, relocating, and euthanasia.

Congressmen have proposed legislation permitting such predators to be killed along the Columbia River annually, according to Naomi Rose, a biologist for Animal Welfare Institute, a national nonprofit. Those bills were never voted on.

On Jan. 25, Governors C.L. Butch Otter of Idaho, Kate Brown of Oregon and Inslee of Washington sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to support legislation aimed at reducing sea lion predation of at-risk fish populations.

“State researchers have estimated that sea lions consume about 20 percent of the entire spring Chinook run” the letter states, closing with, “No one wants to harm these great marine mammals, but effectively dealing with a small fraction of the healthy sea lion population is preferable to losing unique and irreplaceable species of salmon.”

House bill 2083 was passed June 26. A summary of the legislation posted on the congressional website states:

“… Authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue one-year permits allowing (state and tribal agencies) to kill sea lions in a portion of the Columbia River or certain tributaries in order to protect fish from sea lion predation. Permits may be issued to kill sea lions only if the sea lions are part of a population that is not depleted. The permits may authorize the lethal taking of 100 sea lions or fewer. The cumulative annual taking of sea lions each year under all such permits is limited to 10 percent of the annual potential biological removal level. Permit holders must be trained in natural resource management. These permits are exempted from environmental review requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 for five years.”

Another bill, S3119, is currently making its way through the Senate. S3119 is co-sponsored by Idaho Sen. James Risch and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.

The Risch-Cantwell bill doesn’t give a specific number that can be killed. Instead, the bill limits the sea lion removal at 10 percent of the potential biological removal, mirroring H2083’s language, and keeps the removal to specific areas of the Columbia River.

Rose is concerned sea lions will continue to be killed until the pinnipeds end up back on the endangered species list.

“These animals are smart,” Rose said. Even if all the sea lions were killed near the Bonneville dam, new sea lions would find the easy meal, she explained, only to be killed as well. Cormorants also feed off the Columbia River fish, and government agents have been killing them for several years, with little to no impact on the salmon population.

“That should show you this kind of program doesn’t work,” Rose said.

While Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum, has not read H2083 or S3119, generally speaking, she said culling a species is not the best route. Tackling human-caused issues such as overfishing and pollution directly would be more effective, she said. Humans have other food choices, she added, other types of fish to eat, therefore other animals should have first dibs.

Cantwell doesn’t deny other actions need to be taken to save Chinook. She has been working on a variety of restoration projects, her office said, including securing millions of dollars in funding for Puget Sound restoration, the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project and salmon recovery efforts through the Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the Bonneville Dam.

White believes dam removal on the Snake River would be beneficial. However, it may take time before they start taking effect – time Chinook and Southern residents may not have. He added that the spring run of Chinook is heavily impacted by the Columbia sea lions. If predation continues, White is afraid the fish will not survive.

“It’s [the Bonneville dam] not going away anytime soon,” White said. “We can have unfettered sea lion predation, spring Chinook or the dam, but we can’t have all three. We have to pick two.”

Rose admits predation may need to be addressed as part of a larger recovery strategy, but she said sea lions are being singled out. Without addressing other impacts, Chinook and Southern resident orcas may go extinct, and the sea lions will have been killed in vain.

“Without addressing the harder questions and changing our behavior, these animals will have died for nothing,” Rose said.

For more information on the Southern Resident Task force visit www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/energy-environment/southern-resident-killer-whale-recovery-and-task-force.

To learn more about H2083 and S3119 visit www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2083 or www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3119.