CALIFORNIA Seals, sea lions may endanger state's
Voracious mammals feasting on migrating
Glen Martin, San Francisco Chronicle January
Some fishery advocates say seals and sea lions are
eating too many of California's salmon and
steelhead, contributing to the possibility of
shortened fishing seasons and higher seafood
Fish-loving mammals like California sea lions and
Pacific harbor seals tend to congregate at river
mouths, forcing migrating fish to swim a lethal
gauntlet during the spawning season. For fish runs
already threatened by habitat destruction and
water diversions, voracious seals and sea lions
could constitute a tipping point, some experts
Surveys of steelhead on Santa Cruz County's San
Lorenzo River and Scott Creek show about 40
percent of the fish suffered tooth or claw marks
from harbor seals, said Larry Wolf, director of
the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project.
"I've seen up to 20 seals in San Lorenzo at one
time," Wolf said. "Any fish trying to get up or
down the creek was in major jeopardy.
"These creeks may only have 30 to 50 spawning coho
(salmon) returning a year," he said. "It doesn't
take much to wipe out the run."
Bob Strickland, the president of United Anglers of
California, a sport fishing group, said there are
too many seals and sea lions and too few salmon
and steelhead along the West Coast.
"They're everywhere," Strickland said. "I was
fishing the Cowlitz River in Washington and they
were miles up river, chasing the fish. They're up
the Sacramento River now. I fished Monterey Bay
not long ago and hooked 11 salmon. I pulled up 10
heads and only one complete fish. The sea lions
were biting them off the hook."
Michael Weise, a postdoctoral researcher at UC
Santa Cruz, said studies indicate the marine
mammals take between 5 to 15 percent of salmon
returning to streams in Oregon and California.
Research also indicates that seals and sea lions
eat between 12 and 15 percent of salmon hooked by
ocean anglers, he said.
About 240,000 California sea lions and 60,000
Pacific harbor seals live off the U. S. West
Coast. It's not simply that they eat thousands of
salmon that might otherwise be caught by people,
say fishermen -- the critters may also negatively
affect federal fishing regulations.
The health of California's most endangered fish
runs determines the duration and quotas for the
commercial salmon season. Last year, the
California season was greatly limited because of
the Klamath River's paltry chinook and coho salmon
populations. Shorter fishing seasons hurt the
paychecks of commercial fishermen and can cause
consumer fish prices to rise.
There are no easy solutions. Seals and sea lions
are covered under the U.S. Marine Mammal
Protection Act. While the act allows for the
removal of troublesome animals to protect
endangered species, such waivers are hard to get.
Oregon and Washington state officials have applied
to the fisheries department of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to control
seals and sea lions in order to protect endangered
runs of Columbia River salmon. NOAA Fisheries
hasn't yet approved the request.
But federal regulators are aware of the problem,
said Rod McInnis, the southwest regional director
for NOAA Fisheries.
"We've had concerns for some time, especially
about sea lions on the Klamath," McInnis said.
The salmon are also important to the Yurok Indian
tribe, whose ancestral lands include the mouth of
the Klamath. The fish are a food source and
essential to tribal religious ceremonies. Because
tribes exercise a significant degree of
sovereignty over their lands, the Yurok possibly
could kill seals and sea lions on tribal territory
without federal permission.
Troy Fletcher, a Yurok tribal member and a
consultant to the tribe on natural resource
issues, said the Yurok are considering their
"Historically, the tribe has harvested seals and
sea lions for consumption, and that is one option
we'll consider," Fletcher said. "The tribal
council will conduct a review that will be
prudent, cautious and respectful. And whatever
decision they make will be made under the
sovereign authority of the tribe."
While seals and sea lions eat a lot of fish,
fishery advocates and regulators agree they're not
the primary problem confronting salmon and
"It's a touchy subject," said Zeke Grader, the
executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation
of Fishermen's Associations, a commercial fishing
Seals and sea lions can hurt runs, but the
destruction of spawning habitat and water
diversions are bigger problems, Grader said.
William Kier, a Humboldt County fisheries
consultant who specializes in the Klamath runs,
agreed. Seals and sea lions, he said, evolved
along with salmon and steelhead, so they shouldn't
be scorned for doing what comes naturally: eating
"Salmon and steelhead have always had to deal"
with predators, Kier said. "They've always had to
deal with fluctuating ocean temperatures and
changing food supplies. What's new in the equation
is the massive destruction of freshwater habitat
we've seen in the past few decades. That's what
has to be remedied."
E-mail Glen Martin at email@example.com.