By Les Blumenthal,
McClatchy Newspapers 4/15/07
WASHINGTON - For three years, the
California sea lions dining on endangered
salmon below Bonneville Dam on the
Columbia River have been blasted with
rubber buckshot, chased by boats, harassed
by firecrackers and rockets and subjected
to irritating acoustic frequencies blaring
from underwater speakers.
It's known as "non-lethal hazing," and
it hasn't worked. In increasing numbers,
the sea lions continue to feast on salmon
runs that are struggling to survive.
But now the sea lions could face a
Washington state, Oregon and Idaho
together have asked for permission to kill
more than 80 sea lions a year. Legislation
to expedite the request was introduced in
late March in the U.S. House of
In the battle between 400-pound bull
sea lions and the thousands of salmon
heading upstream to spawn, both sides have
picked up important allies. Backers of the
salmon include the three Northwest states,
the region's Indian tribes and four of the
region's members of Congress. Backing the
sea lions: the 10 million-member Humane
Society of the United States.
The confrontation involves two of the
nation's pre-eminent environmental laws,
the Endangered Species Act and the Marine
Mammal Protection Act.
It's a standoff no one really wanted.
"It's a frustrating dilemma," said Rep.
Brian Baird, D-Wash., who supports
eliminating some of the sea lions. "I am
not happy about it, but the trend lines
show salmon runs decreasing and sea lion
State wildlife officials agree.
"As resource managers, we face choices
that sometimes aren't desirable," said Guy
Norman, the Washington state Department of
Fish and Wildlife's regional director in
Vancouver. "But we have to make these
Prior to the passage of the Marine
Mammal Protection Act in 1972, California
sea lions were rarely sighted in the
140-mile stretch of river between the
Pacific Ocean and Bonneville Dam, the
first of the 19 huge hydroelectric dams on
the mainstream of the Columbia and its
largest tributary, the Snake River.
The numbers of California sea lions had
dwindled to fewer than 10,000 before
Congress acted. Until 1972, Washington and
Oregon paid bounties for sea lions killed
in the Columbia, and a state-sanctioned
hunter was employed.
Now, an estimated 300,000 California
sea lions inhabit the Pacific, breeding on
the islands off Southern California and
chasing the food supply as far north as
On a typical day, a dozen or so
California sea lions can be spotted below
Bonneville Dam, though as the spring
chinook runs peak in late April, between
80 and 85 have been seen on a single day.
"There have always been some, but what
is new is the number of sea lions and
their aggressiveness," said Brian Gorman,
a National Marine Fisheries Service
spokesman in Seattle. "They are doing what
God intended them to - eating chinook.
Salmon are easy pickings."
Several sea lions have even entered the
dam's fish ladders, which the salmon use
to skirt the massive concrete structure.
Sea lions also have been spotted upstream
of Bonneville, apparently swimming through
lock gates when they're opened for ship
traffic or hitching rides on barges.
At the same time that the California
sea lion population was expanding, salmon
populations were in sharp decline. The
fish runs were decimated by the dams,
habitat destruction and other factors,
rather than such predatory pinnipeds as
Once, an estimated 16 million salmon
returned annually to the Columbia and its
tributaries. Now, 13 salmon and steelhead
species are protected under the Endangered
"There is not a lot of room for error,"
Norman said of the effort to revive the
most endangered runs.
The California sea lions eat about
3,000 spring chinook yearly immediately
downstream from Bonneville. Elsewhere on
the river and in the ocean they could be
eating even more. About 100,000 spring
chinook have headed upstream past
Bonneville Dam in the past several years,
though between 2001 and 2003 there were
near record runs of nearly 500,000.
In 1994, Congress amended the Marine
Mammal Protection Act to allow for the
killing of individual sea lions or other
pinnipeds feeding on threatened or
endangered salmon and steelhead.
Washington state received a permit to kill
some of the sea lions at the Ballard
Locks, but Sea World in California took
three of the worst offenders before they
could be exterminated.
Critics say the sea lion issue is
little more than a smokescreen to hide the
fact that little has been done to restore
the runs and that hard choices involving
knocking down dams, restoring habitat or
placing severe restrictions on fishing
haven't been made.
"It's distracting attention from the
real issues," said Sharon Young, the
Humane Society's field director for marine
issues. "If you kill sea lions, it looks
like you are doing something meaningful,
but it is meaningless. I want these people
to stand up and get a spine, quit wringing
their hands and do something meaningful."
Baird dismisses the criticism, saying
the region has spent billions of dollars
on salmon restoration, including changes
in the operation of the dams and habitat
improvements, along with fishing
"I am disappointed with them," Baird
said of the Humane Society. "They are off
Here's a timeline of events involving
California sea lions and Columbia River
Early and mid-20th century - Few
California sea lions are found in the
Early 1970s - The number of California
sea lions dwindles to less than 10,000.
1970 - The Washington state seal hunter
job is eliminated. Two years later
Washington and Oregon drop bounties paid
for dead California sea lions.
1972 - Congress passes the Marine
Mammal Protection Act, protecting sea
lions and other pinnipeds.
1973 - Congress passes the Endangered
1980s - California sea lions start
appearing in the Columbia River in
1990s - The first of the Columbia River
salmon and steelhead stocks are protected
under the Endangered Species Act.
1994 - Congress amends the Marine
Mammal Protection Act to allow for the
killing of sea lions and other pinnipeds
if they are eating endangered species. The
action comes as sea lions at Seattle's
Ballard Locks are eating increasing
numbers of Lake Washington steelhead.
1995 - Washington state grants
permission to selectively kill some of the
sea lions at the Ballard Locks.
1998 - Before any sea lions are shot at
the Ballard Locks, a Florida aquarium
agrees to take three of the worst
2000 - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
reports more sightings of California sea
lions at Bonneville Dam as West Coast
populations grow to an estimated 300,000.
2005 - Sightings at Bonneville Dam
continue to increase. On some days 80 or
85 are seen.
2006 - Washington, Oregon and Idaho
apply for a license to kill some of the
sea lions at Bonneville Dam.
2007 - Non-lethal hazing of the sea
lions, in an effort to scare them away, is
expanded to seven days a week.
2007 - Four Northwest members of
Congress introduce legislation that would
expedite a license to kill some of the
California sea lions at Bonneville.