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Fed up with feeding sea lions

Sprinkler system is another tool for hazing, but sportsmen say it's not enough to stop threat to endangered salmon
by: Raymond Rendleman Ian Primo makes his living leading fishing tours near Willamette Falls. He supports policy changes on the federal level championed by State Rep. Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone) to trap problem sea lions and euthanize them.

Eric Dye readily admits that Sportcraft Landing has a serious problem with vermin-not the rats that routinely annoy business owners along Oregon City's Clackamette Drive-but with the 600-pound mammals known as California sea lions.

The aquatic beasts migrate hundreds of miles up the Columbia and Willamette rivers to gorge themselves on endangered salmon and steelhead in front of Dye's marina. After taking their fill of fresh sushi under the soothing spray of Willamette Falls, they plop their fat bellies on one of the Sportcraft docks and bark at anyone who interrupts their post-prandial sunbathing.

This habit has Dye steaming and is why he's installed a temporary solution and is looking for a permanent one.

The Humane Society of the United States doesn't see things his way. They say the Lewis and Clark expedition recorded sea lions traveling up the Willamette hundreds of years ago, and local resentment toward the mammals doesn't factor in how human activity has damaged the river ecosystem.

But Dye and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife decided that the 18 sea lions who regularly weigh down the dock had gotten way too comfortable. After ODFW funding for hazing sea lions using non-lethal explosives dried up about two months ago, Dye and wildlife officials resorted to a motion sensor connected to a sprinkler system.

It didn't take long for the sea lions to learn to avoid the dock with the sprinkler. But now they're lazing around on Sportcraft's southern dock, as well as alternately charming and alarming homeowners along the Clackamas River, where sea lions had rarely been seen before.

'We knew it wouldn't solve the problem, but it got them off their favorite spot,' Dye said.

He fears it's only a matter of time before one of his customers, say a child on a family fishing trip, has a disabling altercation with a sea lion.

This is part of the reason State Rep. Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone) called on Congress to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow for the trapping and killing of sea lions, a resolution that recently passed the House 55-4. Hunt and State Rep. Bill Kennemer (R-Canby) also introduced HB 3255, which passed unanimously in Salem, to expand hazing efforts at Willamette Falls from five to seven days a week during fishing season.

'It is an unfair fight and has resulted in additional negative impacts on fish runs and harmed Oregon's sport-fishing industry-a major recreational and economic engine for our state,' Hunt said in a prepared statement.

Hunt lauded the National Marine Fisheries Service's recent decision to authorize the killing of as many as 255 sea lions over the next three years at Bonneville Dam, but the Humane Society of the United States then returned to federal court for the second time since an injunction was granted in 2008. The national organization, which is not affiliated with the Oregon Humane Society, has argued that these local sea lions do not seriously damage fish runs and have been part of the natural ecosystem for millennia.

'If anything, the urgency is even less than it was because predation is down over the last three years,' said Sharon Young, marine issues field director the Humane Society of the United States. 'People sometimes say that we are favoring charismatic sea lions over plain old fish, but essentially what these politicians are doing is distracting attention from their lack of funding into native salmon recovery.'

Dye argues that the natural balance among people, fish and sea lions has become so tilted toward sea lions that trapping and euthanizing them is now the only viable option.

'Nobody wants to see these animals get killed, but still it's at a point where it needs to be managed,' he said.

Ian Primo, who makes his living leading fishing tours near Willamette Falls, has stronger words against sea lions.

'The hazing has been a big waste of money,' Primo said. 'They all need to be euthanized because there's no fear of man in any of them.'