Sea lion activity puts tribal fishing traditions at risk
Kelly Dirksen could see the emotion on the faces of his fellow Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde members.
It was June 2016, and after a prolonged effort to restore the Tribes' fishing rights at Willamette Falls — which were lost in the 1980s — Grand Ronde fishers were finally returning to the salmon source they'd relied on for thousands of years. Dirksen, the Grand Ronde Fish & Wildlife Program manager, was among those who pushed for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission's vote to restore ceremonial fishing rights at the falls, and the fruits of that labor were evident as he stood on the rocks along the water.
"It was just a really powerful moment — to have that success after working so hard to get that restored," Dirksen said. "You could see it on the faces of everybody."
But the Tribes quickly realized things had changed in the 30-plus years since the fishing rights were lost. Fishers found that they were being outflanked by swarms of invading sea lions. The ODFW ruling in 2016 limited the Tribes to catching just 15 of the endangered salmon and steelhead species per year — and even reaching that number has been a challenge.
"This year we've gone out three times and caught two fish," Dirksen said. "What we saw this year is we have schools (of salmon) that are moved around by sea lions — they basically harass them into areas we can't access.
"The fish we caught were largely spooked by the sea lions. One was injured by a sea lion before we caught it."
Fishing groups and wildlife advocates from across the Northwest have expressed concerns about how sea lions are affecting the salmon and steelhead populations at the falls, and on June 26 the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act.
Introduced by Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR-05) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA-03), the act "provides tribal members and government fish managers with the means to remove sea lions from specific areas where they are posing the most harm."
The action in Washington D.C. was prompted by several alarming figures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that, in 2017, California sea lions killed the largest portion of spring Chinook salmon and steelhead since 2011. ODFW said the Willamette winter steelhead faces a 90 percent chance of extinction if no action is taken.
But the consequences for the Tribes reach far beyond the falls.
"To see the sea lions doing a lot better than us is a bit disturbing, because not only is the issue with fish at the Willamette Falls, but any fish we have here at the Grand Ronde (reservation) has to go through the falls," Dirksen said.
"What we saw with our fishers was that sea lions are parked right at the fish ladder, and they're having no trouble catching fish that are bottlenecked as they try to get over the falls. It's a really precious resource, and it's pretty much a skewed situation right now with the sea lions being able to park right at the fish ladders."
Indeed, the Tribes' fishing season — which runs from April through July — has significant cultural importance.
This past May, the Tribes held their traditional First Salmon Celebration at the historic McLean House in West Linn, which featured a ceremonial meal before the bones of the salmon were taken back to the Grand Ronde Reservation and placed in the Santiam River tributary, Agency Creek, as a way of encouraging the salmon's return.
Siobhan Taylor, who serves as chair of the editorial board for the Tribes' Smoke Signals newspaper, remembered helping the Tribes restart the First Salmon Celebration several years ago, before the fishing rights were restored.
"What really struck me is that every aspect of the fish is sacred," Taylor said. "Nothing from that fish is wasted, and even the bones are returned to the river."
The tradition hearkens back to the earliest days of the Tribes, when the salmon were truly a life-sustaining resource.
"Descendants of the Tribe have fished as long as there's been humans at the falls," Dirksen said.
But sea lions appear to be creating a tradition of their own. And it's not one they're willing to share.
"It is really uncommon to see them in numbers we have now," Dirksen said. "It makes us really worried about what's going to happen long-term for the steelhead."