Pacific Northwest
Sea lions on Whale Rocks, between San Juan and Lopez islands, keep an eye on a research vessel. Karen Ducey / The Seattle Times

WA - Sea lions, seals might be hampering Washington salmon recovery NNY360

SAN JUAN CHANNEL, Wash. — The earthy, fishy smell wafted aboard Joseph Gaydos’ research vessel first. Then came the guttural growls. Dozens of massive tan Steller’s sea lions were resting on the rocky islet.

Gaydos, science director at SeaDoc Society, estimated 100 sea lions were hanging out. Sites like this one, at Whale Rocks off Lopez and San Juan islands, are now havens for more of the charismatic sea lions and seals than ever.

And they’re hungry for the Pacific Northwest’s endangered salmon.

While seal and sea lion populations are at the highest since counts began, salmon populations that help feed the mammals are down to 6 to 7% of their historical abundance, Gaydos said.

State officials are now exploring whether to kill sea lions and seals in the Salish Sea and outer coast in a desperate effort to save salmon species from extinction. A new report commissioned by the state Legislature and completed by the Washington Academy of the Sciences says seals and sea lions are likely impeding salmon recovery, and the full impacts of predation on salmon may not be fully understood without lethal intervention.

The report and new recommendations from a committee of scientists are ramping up the decades-old conversation about seals and sea lions eating too many salmon and how humans should or shouldn’t intervene. The pinnipeds, as they’re formally known, were documented taking advantage of human-made barriers like dams, locks and floating bridges to corral fish for a feeding frenzy. Washington state was first authorized by Congress to capture and euthanize sea lions in the Columbia River Basin in 2018.

Now similar actions are being considered in the Salish Sea, from Hood Canal to the San Juans, and even to the Washington coast.

It’s a brutal and controversial option that some researchers say has the potential to save culturally, economically and ecologically important fish on the brink.

While serving on Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Taskforce, Gaydos heard the impassioned opinions on whether or not pinnipeds are the problem. Southern resident orcas’ primary food source is Chinook salmon, and helping Chinook would ultimately help starving orcas.

About four years ago, Gaydos suggested pulling together the latest research and taking another look at whether an informed decision can be made. Under the taskforce’s recommendation, the Legislature allocated $140,000 in funding for the project.

“This is something we all need,” Gaydos said. “We need to find a common ground of what our level of understanding is about the science.”

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife sent the report to the natural resource and appropriations committees in the Legislature in November. The governor’s budget proposal includes the request for the ongoing pinniped work to continue.

Fish and wildlife officials in the meantime will continue building on pinniped population surveys and diet studies. According to officials, the agency will need funding to study the management options and determine what’s next. Unintended consequences

Midden sites — archaeological sites including domestic waste — along Washington’s north coast have revealed the northern fur seal had long been one of the top food sources for the ancestors of the Makah Tribe and other coastal tribes, said Jon Scordino, Makah marine mammal biologist and a member of the committee that led the new report. And there’s evidence that some Indigenous people up and down the West Coast — from California to Alaska — hunted seals and sea lions for thousands of years.

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