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Ecology and salmon related articles

Sea Shepherd Activist Aids
Columbia River Sea Lions

by Christine Lyon
North Shore News, June 9, 2013

Protector of the dammed

California sea lions consuming salmon just below the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam. (U.S. Corps of Engineers photo) It's shortly after 4 a.m. and darkness still blankets the Columbia River Gorge.

Jeff Matthews wakes up inside a van parked near the south bank, hops in the driver's seat and, like every morning, makes the short drive to the Bonneville Dam - located about 65 kilometres east of Portland, Ore. Not discouraged by the rain, he walks toward the water for a better view of the sunrise.

"The scenery is just stunning," says the North Vancouver resident.

Suddenly, an ear-splitting bang pierces the morning silence and snaps Matthews back to reality.

Rubber buckshot, firecrackers and seal bombs are among the hazing methods used to prevent California sea lions from eating the at-risk salmon and steelhead that congregate below the dam before heading upriver to spawn.

"It's hard to put human emotions onto an animal, but I'd watched them for enough days at that point," Matthews says of the sea lions. "It was clear that they were in distress. They were panicked."

If non-lethal deterrence is not effective, the salmon-eating pinnipeds may be killed.

Matthews made the drive from the North Shore to the Bonneville Dam twice this spring to participate in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Dam Guardians Campaign. For 10 weeks, volunteers staked out the dam as well as the Port of Astoria - situated near the mouth of the Columbia - to document the selective killing of California sea lions. The marine wildlife conservation group says the animals are being wrongly blamed for declining salmon stocks.

Volunteers collectively snapped thousands of photos of wildlife officials trapping, branding and hazing sea lions.

"We would be hiding in bushes and trying to surprise them so we could get candid shots of what they were doing," Matthews says. "If they saw us there pointing a camera, a lot of the time that would be enough to stop them from doing what they were doing."

In March 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration authorized the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho to remove up to 92 sea lions a year. That authorization stays in effect until the end of May 2016.

State and federal biologists estimate that California sea lions have eaten between 1.5 to four per cent of returning adult salmon at the dam each year for the past eight years. Meanwhile, commercial, tribal and recreational fisheries are allowed to take up to 17 per cent.

Matthews says sea lions are being scapegoated for declining salmon returns.

"The salmon are endangered because we've over-fished them. People have eaten too many and they've pulled too many from the river and that's why they're endangered. It's a problem that's been caused by people," he says, adding that killing sea lions is a "short-sighted and oversimplified" solution.

Originally from Hamilton, Ont., the physics PhD has supported the Sea Shepherds for years through donations, but this is the first time he has volunteered for a campaign.

Other than his fellow Dam Guardian, Matthews says he didn't make many friends along the way. In fact, his presence was met with hostility by one group of sport fishermen, who he says hurled slurs at him when they saw his Sea Shepherd attire and camera gear.

"There's this mass hysteria," he says. "These people truly believe that sea lions are the problem."

. . .

The Dam Guardians campaign took place March 15 to May 31, coinciding with the annual spring salmon run, and Seattle resident Ashley Lenton was on the ground the whole time as campaign leader.

"People heard about it and came from across the globe," Lenton says, explaining the campaign drew 40 volunteers, most of them from the Pacific Northwest, but a few from as far as India, Germany and the Netherlands.

She says the rationale behind killing California sea lions just doesn't make sense.

"If anyone looks at the science more carefully, the sea lions are not the reason for the decline in wild salmon, they don't even take in a season what commercial fishing or even the dam itself takes in a day," she says. "They're being scapegoated."

Lenton attributes the decline in salmon populations to "the four H's." The hydroelectric dam claims fish lives, the hatcheries produce fish that compete with wild species for food, the habitat is polluted, and the salmon are over-harvested, she says.

"There are in fact bigger and more detrimental reasons why the fish are in decline and those issues need to be addressed. Sea lions need to be left alone. They're part of the natural habitat, they're part of our ecosystem, they're part of the landscape."

The Dam Guardians campaign was successful in what it set out to do, Lenton says.

"We were able to really shine a light on the fact that these animals are being killed just for the crime of eating fish."

Lenton has been involved with the Sea Shepherds her whole life. Her Canadian father closely followed the career of Paul Watson, one of the early members of Greenpeace who parted ways with that environmental organization and founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society 1977. Since then, the society has embarked on more than 200 voyages in defence of marine life. But not without controversy.

Watson and his crew have come under fire for using aggressive, interventionist tactics and have claimed responsibility for damaging or sinking multiple whaling ships. Earlier this year, Watson stepped down as head of the Sea Shepherds after being named in a U.S. court order that prohibits him from coming within a certain distance of Japanese whaling boats.

When it comes to the Dam Guardians, Lenton says volunteers followed the rules, one of them being not to trespass on the federal land around the Bonneville Dam.

"Sea Shepherd is not a protest organization, so what we do is observe and document and we use our video cameras to do that," she explains. "We very much work within the law."

. . .

Under Lenton's guard, two California sea lions were killed and two were removed and sent to zoos.

The NOAA has confirmed that since March 2012, the states have permanently removed 17 sea lions - 14 of them euthanized and three placed in captivity.

"The animals are killed humanely by injection," says NOAA spokesperson Brian Gorman.

Wildlife authorities may request permission to kill sea lions that are having a "significant negative impact" on at-risk salmon and steelhead. The mammals must be identifiable, usually by a brand, have been observed eating salmon in the dam area between Jan. 1 and May 31 of any year, been spotted on five days during that same time period, and have been unresponsive to non-lethal hazing.

Gorman says many things, of which sea lion predation is only one, impact yearly salmon and steelhead runs. Since peaking in 2008, he says the average daily presence of California sea lions immediately below the Bonneville Dam has dropped.

"Nonetheless, California sea lions maintain a strong presence at the dam and were responsible for half of the adult salmonid predation there this spring."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dam, calculated an expanded sea lion predation estimate of slightly more than 2,000 salmonids killed during the 2012 and 2013 winter/spring runs, less than the high of more than 6,000 salmonids estimated killed during the 2010 run.

"Many variables can affect predation so we can't yet conclude that the sea lion removal program caused the decline in salmonid consumption. But, the decreased consumption of adult salmonids by California sea lions below Bonneville Dam is encouraging," Gorman says.

The NOAA first authorized the states to euthanize California sea lions starting in 2008, but the program was suspended in 2010 as a result of a court order.

Prior to the March 2012 authorization, the states had trapped and removed 38 California sea lions under various agency authorizations. Ten were relocated to captivity and 28 were killed.

. . .

Declining salmon stocks is a troubling issue north of the border, too, but it's difficult to compare B.C.'s Fraser River to the Columbia.

"Both are really important salmon rivers, but the big difference is that the Columbia is full of dams and the Fraser isn't," says Dr. Andrew Trites, director of UBC's Marine Mammal Research Unit.

"As the fish come into the Columbia they get stopped by the dam," he explains. "There are fish ladders to help them get around it but in the confusion, while the fish are trying to figure out what happened to the river, they start to pool up there and the sea lions get them."

The waters around the Lower Mainland get some visiting California sea lions in spring and fall, Trites says, but they feed mainly on herring. More common up north are Steller sea lions. They eat salmon, Trites says, along with many other types of fish, but they tend to catch their meals in the outer coastal areas.

The most abundant salmon-eating marine mammal found locally is the harbour seal, and its predatory effect on the population of smolts in the Fraser is the subject of ongoing research, Trites says.

"In the Strait of Georgia we have right here on our doorstep the world's highest density of harbour seals," Trites says, with an estimated 30,000 in the Georgia Strait and another 10,000 in Puget Sound.

Still, the Fraser doesn't have the same feeding frenzy sites that the Columbia does.

"Because we don't have dams, there's no spot in the system where you're going to have a bottleneck where fish could accumulate and the mammals could learn to go there to catch them more efficiently."

Trites co-wrote a technical report about predation for the Cohen Commission, which investigated the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. After nearly three years of research, the federal inquiry identified no smoking gun to explain the decline in sockeye.

"The collective best guess is there's something happening to ocean survival when the young fish go down the river into the ocean, but we're not sure what it is," Trites says.

In the Fraser, he says, the concern is focused on smolts leaving the river and entering the ocean. Whereas in the Columbia, the emphasis is on ensuring adult fish make it upriver to spawn.

Trites says killing sea lions is not a long-term solution.

"There's a perception that it must be effective, but I've never seen any study yet to show that the killing of marine mammals to save salmon has ever worked," he says, adding the tactic does not address the more fundamental issues of why salmon populations are in trouble.

"It seems that if you truly are concerned about the survival of salmon then you need to be evaluating all the factors, not just pointing to one and using that as a scapegoat."

Still, Trites says he does understand why some people, especially recreational anglers, might view sea lions as pests.

"I don't think you can meet a single sport fisherman who's not been reeling in a salmon and then had a seal or sea lion come and take it from them."

. . .

Back home in North Vancouver, Matthews sits in front of his open MacBook Pro and scrolls through photos he took at the Bonneville Dam.

"These guys are so cute," he says, pausing to admire a snapshot of a sea lion, its whiskered face peeking above the water, staring straight at the camera with big black eyes. "Sorry, I took a lot of pictures of sea lions," Matthews laughs as he clicks through a half dozen images of the same animal.

"Spending so many days just watching them in their natural environment and doing what they do, I came to look upon them as pretty incredible creatures."

Matthews says his first Sea Shepherd volunteer experience was life-changing.

"I've never spent more time sitting around in bushes waiting for something to happen in my life and not been bored at all," he says. "I wasn't sitting around fuming about all this stuff that I see wrong. I was actually out trying to do something about it."

He is already looking forward to his next environmental crusade, which may involve a trip to Taiji, Japan, where the Sea Shepherd crews are monitoring the annual dolphin drive hunt.

"I can't think of a bigger issue facing people at this point than the environment," Matthews says, "and somebody's got to do something."

Christine Lyon
Sea Shepherd Activist Aids Columbia River Sea Lions
North Shore News, June 9, 2013

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