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Annual clash over sea lions, salmon resumes

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - Sea lions have learned  to follow salmon to the base  of Bonneville Dam, where they are easy prey. That causes conflicts between fishers and animal rights groups.With a splash and a chomp and a flash of blood, a sea lion seizes its prey: a chinook salmon, prized as the largest of the Pacific salmon. If you live in the Northwest, you’ve seen the image in the news, (if not first hand) and may be ready to argue about an issue that’s been stewing here for a decade.

Every spring, chinook salmon migrate upstream and predators follow. Sea lions have discovered bottlenecks that hinder the fish’s progress and make them easier to catch at two spots — the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and the Willamette Falls fish ladder on the Willamette River.

For 2013, the government plans to control sea lion predation in both locations, using measures that some people find too harsh and others find maddeningly inadequate.

Sea lions historically fished in Oregon rivers, but they disappeared as their overall numbers shrank throughout the 20th century. But now the California sea lion population is healthy, having bounced back after 40 years of protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Chinook salmon, by contrast, are not doing well. The government predicts about 144,000 fish for the Columbia spring run.

“That is down significantly,” says Jessica Sall, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman.

Significant numbers of sea

lions were first seen at Bonneville Dam in 2002. Thirty were counted that year, and more than 100 the next year. Last year there were at least 112 estimated at the dam: 39 California sea lions and 73 Steller sea lions. The California sea lions who made the 140-mile swim are all adult males, with a mixture of new and returning ones.

Killing wildlife to save wildlife

As in recent years, the state of Oregon will try to keep sea lions from eating salmon.

“We have plans to continue our trapping and removal operations pretty much as we have in past years,” Sall says.

That means boats in the water at Bonneville and Willamette Falls, chasing the sea lions and frightening them with loud explosive devices similar to fireworks. At the dam, there also are plans to trap and kill sea lions, although that could change.

Starting in 2008, California sea lions identified as repeat offenders have been captured in floating cages. A few have been relocated to zoos and aquariums, and more have been killed by lethal injection.

The decision to kill the animals is controversial, bringing animal rights groups into the fray. The Humane Society of the United States has been fighting the program in court, including a pending case it filed with the Wild Fish Conservancy. They argue that many other factors, including sport fishing, do more damage to the fish runs than the sea lions.

“If the true concern here is the recovery of the salmon, you focus attention on issues that will enhance recovery,” says Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society. The sea lions are just a distraction, she argues. “It’s a completely inappropriate focus.”

Until a decision is handed down, the state is authorized to kill 30 sea lions at the dam this year. If the Humane Society loses, then up to 92 California sea lions could be killed at Bonneville. (That amount is unlikely, though, since the most ever killed in a single season was 22.)

There are no plans to euthanize sea lions at Willamette Falls, because the exception to the Marine Mammal Protection Act only covers those on the Columbia River. Expanding that to the Willamette would require a lengthy legal process.

“We’re not prepared to do that,” says Rick Swart, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman.

Enough funding has been secured for hazing operations on the Willamette, $112,000, to pay a crew every day from February through April during daylight hours. Oregon City residents may be hearing some loud noises.

So far, Swart says, the hazing program seems effective, though regulators would like more experience and information “to see if it really does work.”

 Program aiding salmon

At Bonneville, sea lion removal seems to be helping, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 2012 field report. As a result, the report recommends increasing the number of killed sea lions to about 30 a year, rather than the 10 to 15 that has been more typical.

Total sea lion predation of salmon and steelhead peaked at an estimated 4.7 percent of the run in 2007. In 2011 it was down to 1.8 percent, and last year it was 1.4 percent for the spring season from January through May, and 0.9 percent for spring chinook.

Defenders of sea lions read those numbers a different way, saying they’re not high enough to warrant a death sentence.

A group called the Sea Lion Defense Brigade plans to monitor activity at Bonneville Dam, Willamette Falls and the mouth of the Columbia in Astoria, as it has in past years. The brigade also plans to engage the public — mindful that Bonneville Dam is a tourist destination.

Last spring, the brigade secured the support of a powerful ally, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Best known for its starring role in the Animal Planet reality series “Whale Wars,” Sea Shepherd has an international reach and recruits volunteers to be advocates and observers on the rivers. The group also circulated a petition to boycott Oregon and Washington tourism activities, which received about 19,000 signatures. So expect more attention this year for the sea lions from outside the Northwest.

Tracking people too

Also in 2013, expect more close encounters between humans and sea lions. Sea lions have learned that fishermen sometimes toss stunned fish back into the water, and they have been known to steal salmon from nets. They also like to sunbathe on the same docks where anglers keep their boats.

Sea lions aren’t normally aggressive, says Doreen Gurrola, marine science educator at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. “They don’t go around attacking people,” Gurrola says, “but if you’re in the water, you’re in their territory. Just like any wild animal, it’s going to defend itself.” Sea lion bites can be especially dangerous, she says, due to bacteria in their mouths.

Humans can be dangerous to sea lions, too. Last spring and summer, 20 dead sea lions were found on the Oregon and Washington coasts that appeared to have gunshot wounds. Some of them were Steller sea lions, which means the killers violated the Endangered Species Act.

In fact, the protected Stellers are an increasing problem. They outnumbered California sea lions at Bonneville last year, although they aren’t an issue at Oregon City. They consume salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon, and engage in a behavior that scientists call “cleptoparasitism” — they steal fish from other sea lions.

Eventually, the California sea lions depart of their own accord, following the same imperative that drives salmon upstream. In May and June they head south, to the warm beaches of their southern breeding grounds.