California Sea Lions Vs. Willamette Falls Steelhead

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife released a statement on Monday, August 7 explaining that the population of native winter steelhead trout living under the Willamette Falls — located between Oregon City and West Linn — is at risk of total extinction. Due to a massive influx of hungry California sea lions feeding on steelhead in this location, the steelhead run living under the falls may be decimated.

In a press release given this month to The Oregonian, the ODFW stated that the results of their steelhead population feasibility study showed an 89 percent probability that at least one population of steelhead species in that area would be extinct soon. 

The Willamette Falls, which used to be the home of the Blue Heron Paper Mill, is known to Oregonians as the largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest. For sea lions living in the Columbia River Basin, the Willamette Falls area provides a veritable easy-prey buffet of fish due to the way in which the falls work as a natural barrier staggering steelhead migration out into the ocean. 

The ODFW found that these sea lions ate more than a fourth of the entire 2017 steelhead run. Only a little over 500 individual fish have made it up the falls since the beginning of this year.

The only way to save the steelhead trout population from becoming extinct in that particular area would be to kill off some of the sea lions that are eating them. Unfortunately for the fish, sea lions are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Only an act of Congress could revoke the rules designated by federal protection of sea lions by amending the MMPA.

In order to save Willamette Falls’ steelhead, Oregon wildlife authorities must get permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service — the agency in charge of protecting sea lion lives at a federal level — to kill a certain number of sea lions in that area. However, a permit that was already requested by the state of Oregon in June to cull the animals is still being processed and may still take years to complete. 

The most feasible solution found by the ODFW to save steelhead has been to create a bill that, if passed, would alter the Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to make it easier for the state wildlife office to kill sea lions in the Columbia River Basin. H.R.2083, otherwise known as the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, is being sponsored by U.S. Representatives Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Washington). If this venture is successful, the chances of the Willamette steelhead trout population becoming extinct will be brought down to 6 percent.

By Kiki Genoa