Being Frank: Marine Mammal Predation on Salmon is Out of Control

Being Frank is a column written by Chairman Ed Johnstone of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. As a statement from the NWIFC chairman, the column represents the natural resources management concerns of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington.

Our tribal fishermen are being out-fished by marine mammals.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, it was rare to see a sea lion at the mouth of the Quinault or Hoh rivers. But now in Grays Harbor, you can’t even walk down on the docks because sea lions are everywhere.

I remember standing with Billy Frank Jr. at Frank’s Landing in 2010 when we saw about 13 sea lions lying on the sand bar. “These sea lions have never been here like this before,” Billy said. “This is not their home ground.” They’ve migrated here to eat our salmon and steelhead.

Harbor seals also have been traveling way up the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers to feed. Our fishermen are sitting on the banks while the pinnipeds are fishing.

The explosive growth of marine mammal populations has created an imbalance in the natural world, and we need to act now to get it under control.

This is happening against a backdrop of habitat loss that will take years to recover. While our recovery plans work to restore habitat, the most immediate thing we can do to protect salmon is reduce the impact of predation and account for the loss of the resource.

When tribes in western Washington signed treaties with the U.S. government, we reserved the right to continue hunting and fishing as we always have. Salmon are a treaty-protected resource, and that means we have a treaty right to manage the populations of marine mammals that threaten the health of the ecosystem.

Seals and sea lions take six times more salmon in the Puget Sound and Olympic coast than tribal and nontribal fisheries combined. Studies found that they eat about 1.4 million pounds annually of threatened chinook in Puget Sound alone.

Not only are seals and sea lions out-fishing us, but they also are intercepting the hatchery chinook we’ve produced to benefit southern resident orcas.

Between 1975 and 2015, harbor seal populations in the Salish Sea grew from about 8,500 to nearly 78,000. On the outer Washington coast, the number grew from fewer than 7,000 in 1980 to more than 20,000, according to aerial studies by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While harbor seals may have reached their carrying capacity, the number of California sea lions along the west coast of the United States has risen as high as 300,000. The combined impact on our fisheries is out of control.

These pinnipeds have been protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which was meant to protect fur seals, dolphins and whales in response to significant population declines caused by human activities.

No marine mammal species has gone extinct in U.S. waters since the MMPA was enacted. But sea lions and harbor seals were never in danger of extinction, and because of MMPA protections, they have become invasive species.

The MMPA has an important role to play, but it didn’t address carrying capacity or maximum sustainable yield, so now we have too many pinnipeds and not enough prey. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service has a responsibility to work with us to restore the balance in our ecosystem.

A new marine mammal strategy is needed to control predation in rivers throughout western Washington to protect out-migrating smolts and returning adult salmon and steelhead.

The state Legislature already has directed the Washington Academy of Science to learn more about the marine mammal problem, identify knowledge gaps and evaluate the effectiveness of potential management solutions.

Some of the short-term methods that have been tried with limited success include hazing with projectiles or boats, targeted acoustic startle technology, mechanical barriers and relocation. To solve the problem in the long term, we have to evaluate how many seals and sea lions the habitat can support and control their populations.

The tribes and others have invested billions of dollars and countless hours to try to recover salmon populations. We have reduced our fisheries by 80 to 90 percent over the past 40 years. Our federal trustee is obligated to support our efforts to manage marine mammals and fix the imbalance caused by the MMPA.

We have much work to do.

Sea lions haul out at the Westport Harbor Marina. Photo: Kaynor Community Education, via Wikimedia Commons.