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MSNBC.com http://msnbc.msn.com/id/10097417/

Prosperous sea lions make fishermen angry

Protected population eats into dwindling salmon runs

By Timothy Gardner

Nov. 22, 2005

ASTORIA, Ore. - A state employee wielding a wooden club walked the slippery docks looking for a sea lion oozing blood from a gunshot wound.

“Have you seen the stinky one?” the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife worker asked a visitor after shooing a gaggle of California sea lions weighing up to 800 pounds off the slick slats. “He was here a few days ago. Somebody shot him and now he’s rotting from the inside.”

Officials didn’t know who shot the rotting sea lion, but many fishermen in the U.S. Northwest are unhappy about a surge in sea lion numbers over the past 25 years. The animals are eating fish, including endangered Pacific salmon, and depleting catches.

They’re eating us alive,” Jim Wells, a commercial fisherman, said of sea lions and seals. Wells pulled in his net at the mouth of the Columbia River on a recent day, and a seal, whose smooth black head poked up like a periscope after he unraveled the net, had eaten all but the jaw of a salmon, Wells’ only catch.

From hunted to protected
Hunters in the U.S. Northwest used to slaughter sea lions, sometimes with machine guns, to sell to glue factories or to send their dried penises to China as an aphrodisiac.

That changed when Congress passed the 1972 Marine Mammals Protection Act outlawing the hunting or exporting of California sea lions and harbor seals. Since then, the number of sea lions on the West Coast have climbed nearly 60 percent to about 300,000, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Harbor seals are also more numerous.

But commercial and sports fishermen complain about how much endangered Pacific salmon, some of the world’s last wild fish, the mammals eat.

“They become a huge factor only when so few fish are left for the fishermen to catch,” said Glen Spain, a director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations.

Sports fishermen say sea lions swipe salmon right off their hooks.

Other factors have bigger impact
To be sure, the sea lions take only minuscule amounts of fish compared to the factors that made salmon endangered in the first place, such as dam building and habitat destruction. But many biologists see some risk.

“Sea lions can take a lot of those adults and they can be a problem at fairly specific points in the migration of adult fish,” said Jim Lichatowich, a fisheries scientist.

Before overfishing began in the late 1800s, the Columbia River basin supported 16 million salmon. Hydropower dams built during the Great Depression blocked the salmon’s migration. And growth in agriculture and home building destroyed streams where salmon spawn. As a result, some 50 populations of Pacific salmon and related steelhead went extinct, according to the fisheries service.

Today their population is a fraction of the original number and survival is in doubt.

The salmon’s migration from the ocean to the inland streams where they breed also makes them vulnerable.

Last spring at the Bonneville Dam, for instance, sea lions waddled up fish ladders designed to allow adult salmon to bypass the dam and spawn. One made it to the observation window where tourists ordinarily watch migrating fish.

“Clearly they take fish,” said Jeff Laake, a biologist with the U.S. fisheries service. “Whether that’s a problem is a societal view.”

Back and forth to California
Wells worries about spring when the sea lions fatten up before drifting down to California to mate. He said he has seen up to 15 sea lions on his net at once and that when they tire of eating whole fish, they eat only the bellies and eggs and toss the carcasses aside.

Some people risk the Marine Mammal Act’s penalties of $10,000, a year in jail, or both, by taking things into their own hands. A California fishing boat captain this year was sentenced to two months in prison for shooting at sea lions.

The Marine Mammal Center near San Francisco treats several sea lions every year that have gunshot wounds.

Fishermen hope one day Congress will amend the marine mammal act to allow culling of the predators.

Others are more cautious. Floyd Holcom, an ex-commercial fisherman, runs a bed and breakfast that overlooks sea lions basking on a rock pile near the pier in Astoria, Oregon.

Holcom said the mammals bring in business. “They are quite the attraction to people who have never seen them before,” he said. 

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