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States seek permission to kill salmon-gobbling sea lions

By Les Blumenthal, McClatchy Newspapers 4/15/07
A sea lion catches an endangered chinook salmon migrating up the Columbia River just below the spillway at Bonneville Dam in Oregon.
Janet Jensen/Tacoma News Tribune/MCT
A sea lion catches an endangered chinook salmon migrating up the Columbia River just below the spillway at Bonneville Dam in Oregon.

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 death sentence.

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 Representatives.

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 populations growing."

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 decisions."

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 Puget Sound.

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 sea lions.

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 Species Act.

"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 restrictions.

"I am disappointed with them," Baird said of the Humane Society. "They are off base."


Here's a timeline of events involving California sea lions and Columbia River salmon:

Early and mid-20th century - Few California sea lions are found in the Columbia River.

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 Species Act.

1980s - California sea lions start appearing in the Columbia River in increasing numbers.

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 offenders.

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.

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