Steelhead, longtime residents in our rivers here in the Pacific Northwest, are now approaching extinction with alarming speed. This isn’t exaggeration; the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife found that one population of steelhead has an 89 percent chance of becoming extinct in the not too distant future.
The culprit for the fish’s demise? Sea lions.
Experts are pointing to the increased population of California sea lions as the biggest threat. The sea lions gather in locations where steelhead and salmon are the most vulnerable, like below the Willamette Falls or the Bonneville Dam, where these native fish species congregate before heading upstream to spawn.
An alarmingly low number of native steelhead — just 512 — made it over Willamette Falls this year. While fish numbers continue a troubling downward trend that we’ve seen the last few years, sea lions are increasing in unnaturally high numbers.
California sea lions aren’t endangered. In fact, their population has increased to about 300,000 animals, rebounding from a low of 10,000 about 70 years ago. Nonlethal methods of removing them have proved futile. Recreational and commercial fishermen, tribes, biologists, and other experts know that another approach is needed.
My bipartisan bill, the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Act, gives local resource managers tools to take action and protect the future of steelhead and salmon. It allows tribal managers with the proper training and experience to lethally remove a limited number of the sea lions from the areas where they’re causing the most damage to our native fish populations.
Without the bill, sea lions will continue gorging on salmon and steelhead, driving their numbers dangerously low.
While this bipartisan legislation is making progress in the U.S. House — it was approved and advanced by congressional committee just last month — it has a ways to go. We need our partners in the U.S. Senate who represent Oregon and Washington to recognize the imminent peril to steelhead and salmon if Congress fails to take action.
There’s a reason that organizations ranging from sport and commercial fishing groups, tribes, public utilities, state fish and wildlife agencies, members of Congress from both parties, and countless others have put their support behind this bill — it’s likely our only hope.
From the shops that sell poles, to weekend anglers, to the guides that take visitors on their first fishing trips, to the residents who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading our hydroelectric dams to allow 97 percent of all fish to pass safely through — there is a lot riding on the future of our native fish species.
Rather than see the extinction of steelhead and salmon in our lifetime, we should do what we’ve always done here in the Northwest: find sensible solutions to protect our way of life and the resources we enjoy for generations to come.
The Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Act is the solution we need now.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, represents Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.