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Sea lions horn in on south coast fish Salmon - Most of Gold Beach's sport catch was being stolen right off of anglers' gear, which led to hiring hazers
August 08, 2006 LORI TOBIAS

GOLD BEACH -- When Ernie Weston hooked a 25-pound salmon last summer on Rogue River Bay, he did what he usually does: He handed the rod to his wife, Rena, and grabbed the net to haul in the fish.

Only this time, as he reached into the net, a sea lion beat him to the catch. The massive pinniped snapped up the salmon, the net and nearly Ernie.

"My hand was caught in the net and he just took off," the 82-year-old angler recalled. "I was almost clear over and in the water when my hand just happened to come loose."

If it hadn't, the couple believe he might have drowned.

The Westons' story is just one of many that led the Port of Gold Beach this year to hire hazers for the first time, to keep sea lions out of Rogue Bay and protect the local fishing industry.

Sea lions last year stole an estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of the fish caught in the bay -- taking them right off people's rods and from their nets on the water, said Port Commissioner Lawrence Johnson.

It's no small matter, Johnson said. He estimates that about 40 percent of the south Oregon coastal community's economy comes from the charter fishing industry and spin-off business in gear shops, hotels and the like. Gold Beach has about 2,800 residents. On a summer day at the height of fishing season, it's not unusual to see more than 100 guided and private boats fishing the bay.

"Last summer was absolutely a disaster," said Rena Weston, a part-time Gold Beach resident. "They grab your fish and they rip the belly out and your fish is gone. You pay for a guide and a motel, and you go home with nothing."

So now each day, one of two hazers motors out onto the bay. There, guided by radio reports from fishermen, they use "seal bombs" -- like an underwater firecracker -- and "popper shells" -- shotgun shells with a secondary firecracker -- to chase the sea lions from the river out into the ocean.

The $40,000 tab for the program was paid for by the Curry Sportfishing Association and approved by state and federal agencies that protect sea lions under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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