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Sea lions become targets on Columbia River

DAVE STREGE Register columnist OUTDOORS dstrege@ocregister.com

When is a federally protected species not protected? When it starts decimating the population of another federally protected species.

Such is the case with more than 100 California sea lions that reportedly kill about 3,000 spring Chinook salmon and steelhead annually at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.

Increasing numbers of sea lions are finding easy meals as the protected fish stack up in front of the fish ladder during spawning runs.

Sea lions are also starting to feed on sturgeon, which are easy prey from above as they hug the river bottom.

So last week, the fish and wildlife departments of Oregon, Washington and Idaho asked the federal government for permission to kill the problem sea lions.

It probably will take a year before approval is granted under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which allows the killing of identifiable marine mammals eating fish protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, the sea lion problem for local fishermen continues to worsen.

Freelance skipper Norris Tapp at Davey's Locker in Newport Beach said the past two trips he has taken to Catalina Island, 12-15 sea lions surrounded the boat as anglers attempted to catch bonito.

"For whatever reason, they're starting to congregate in bigger numbers around the boats," Tapp said. "It's gotten worse and worse, and it's happened quickly."

On its Web site, the National Marine Fisheries Service lists legal deterrent methods anglers can use to shoo away sea lions, such as pyrotechnics (seal bombs and underwater firecrackers), starter pistols, sling shots and paintball guns.

Tapp said a box of 72 seal bombs costs $40 and two boxes an hour would be needed to keep away the sea lions.

"That gets extremely costly," Tapp said. "Those methods just aren't working."

Since bonito, white seabass, yellowtail and barracuda are not endangered, state officials cannot take an approach like the Pacific Northwest.

Bob Fletcher, president of the Sportfishing Association of California, said "the only realistic hope" is the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, something that has faced delays since 1999.

The reauthorized bill includes the requirement that the National Marine Fisheries Service begin development of an effective, non-lethal deterrent device and that NMFS reports to Congress annually on its progress.

But before the MMPA can be put into effect, the Magnuson-Stevenson Fishery Management Act must first be reauthorized, Fletcher said.

The Senate already passed the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevenson Act. It needed House approval before going to the president for his signature. It was close to passing in September but was sidetracked by an issue with flounder on the East Coast, Fletcher said.

There was some talk about possibly getting it through during the lame-duck session of Congress that started Monday, but Fletcher called that a longshot.

If it doesn't pass, the whole process would start over with the new Democratic Congress. Fletcher said it could be months before a new House version is approved.

Until an effective deterrent is produced under the MMPA - which could be several years - fishermen and Newport Harbor residents and boat owners will have no recourse over problem sea lions.

CONTACT US: 714-796-7809 or dstrege@ocregister.com

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