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Ecology and salmon related articles

Falling Prey

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, May 20, 2018

Fisheries officials and anglers say opportunistic sea lions threaten salmon and steelhead runs,
seek new tools to deal with the hungry ocean mammals.

A California sea lion waits to be released into the Pacific Ocean in Newport. Two species of fish listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act are facing a growing challenge in Oregon from hungry sea lions. The federally protected California sea lions are traveling into the Columbia River and its tributaries to snack on fragile fish populations. After a decade of killing the hungriest sea lions in one area, wildlife officials now want to expand the program. (Don Ryan, AP photo) CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. - Teddy Walsey stood on the bow of a jet boat, shouldered a 12-gauge shotgun and fired in the direction of a sea lion.

Seconds later a cracker shell exploded on the surface of the Columbia River, sending a plume of water into the air. Walsey pumped another shell into the chamber - this one designed to sink before exploding - and skipped it across the surface of the milky green river that is flowing at more than 340,000 cubic feet per second.

The current is strong but no match for powerful spring chinook salmon that have just started to show up in numbers at Bonneville Dam, 45 miles east of Portland, nor for the Steller and California sea lions that are here to feast on the fish.

Walsey and his co-workers with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission are trying to haze the massive marine mammals away from the dam, an artificial pinch point in the river that causes chinook to stall as they search for the fish ladders allowing them to progress upstream.

The bottleneck provides a perfect feeding ground for the sea lions that have increased their presence in the lower Columbia River and its tributaries in the past decade or so and created bureaucratic and regulatory whitewater as rough and challenging as any that surround salmon and steelhead policy in the Northwest.

Predator and prey protected

Sea lion predation is a problem often seized upon by frustrated anglers and dam supporters who blame the animals for faltering fish runs. Fisheries managers don't disagree but also say salmon and steelhead face more problems than just pinniped predation.

The sea lions, sheltered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, are thriving and at least some of the fish they are eating, including wild salmon and steelhead bound for Idaho, are protected by the Endangered Species Act. According to some studies, the predation has reached significant levels for the protected fish at places like Willamette Falls near Oregon City, Ore., and may push them over the edge.

Solutions have proven as elusive as the sea lion Walsey targeted. The animal disappeared beneath the surface and remained under for minutes before spotter Reggie Sargeant spied him trying to slip into a side channel where he could sneak back upstream. Bobby Begay maneuvered the boat to position Walsey for another shot and to block the sea lion's upriver route.

"If I keep him in the current, he'll keep going down," Begay said of a massive Steller bull.

All three are members of the Yakama Nation and fishermen. They patrol the waters below Bonneville Dam three days a week, searching for sea lions. The marine mammals are not hard to find. Several individuals and small groups could be seen surfacing and then diving in search of food.

When sea lions catch a salmon, they surface and thrash the fish back and forth to soften it up before swallowing. The red, oily, nutrient-packed flesh breaks apart in the commotion and attracts swarming sea gulls hoping to pluck a morsel from the water.

"We call it shake and break," said Doug Hatch, senior fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission at Portland.

Satisfied that the big Steller had moved a sufficient distance downstream, Begay turned the boat upriver and the crew looked for more sea lions to harass. Like their first target, the handful of other animals they hazed slipped downstream. But it's a temporary salve.

"It saves some fish, but they'll be back this afternoon or tomorrow. It doesn't have any long-lasting effect," Hatch said.

Kill 'em all

At a boat ramp on the Willamette River it's not hard to find angry fishermen willing to vent about pinniped problems. Anglers there and in the lower Columbia River are accustomed to sea lions stealing fish from their lines.

Fishing outfitter Carl Burge of Carlton, Ore., said when fighting a salmon in the presence of sea lions, it's best to act nonchalant, avoid displays of excitement and keep the net down until the last second. The mammals have learned that people standing, reeling or wielding a net means an easy meal.

"You just sit down and reel. If you act like you are fighting a fish, they will go to the commotion." Burge said.

On his worst sea lion day, he said he and his clients hooked 11 salmon - "we got three and a half of them back."

"It's bad," said his friend James Goings of McMinnville, Ore. "Man, why can't we get rid of some of them?"

Brandon Tisdale, another friend who is from Lewiston and now lives in Newberg, Ore., is more blunt.

"Kill them all," Tisdale said. "There needs to be a cutoff point where if they come that far up the river, they kill them."

A proposal similar to Tisdale's - not killing all of the sea lions but creating areas where their presence is a death warrant - is languishing in the halls of Congress.

Sea lions thriving

Sea lions have flourished over the last 40 years. Their numbers were reduced to alarmingly low levels in the 1800s when they were targeted by fishermen and state-sponsored bounties. Down to just a few thousands animals in the 1920s, the population made a slow recovery aided by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which permanently ended bounties that had already begun to fall out of favor by the 1950s.

Their numbers peaked and exceeded carrying capacity in recent years. Rough estimates put the California population between 250,000 and 275,000 animals and Stellers at about 71,500. The vast majority of those never see the Columbia River.

California sea lions breed on the Channel Islands off the coast of California. Females nurse for 11 months and never really leave, said Bob DeLong, a marine mammal specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Seattle.

"What we have in the Columbia River is primarily adult males that come from breeding grounds in Southern California."

California sea lions mate in June and July. The rest of the year, the males - 40,000 to 60,000 animals - roam the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska, feeding on things like salmon, squid, smelt and herring.

Some of those visit the Columbia River - likely drawn there by eulachon, also known as Columbia River smelt - in January, February and March. They stay for winter steelhead and spring salmon.

Sea lion counts in the lower Columbia peaked at about 3,000 between 2013 and 2015 when the smelt run was surging. In bad predation years, there can be 100 to 120 sea lions a day feeding near Bonneville Dam, said Ed Bowles, fish division administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at Salem. Last year, 92 individual California sea lions were documented at Bonneville Dam and 62 Stellers throughout the season. Three weeks ago, there was an estimated 70 or so sea lions in the entire lower Columbia and 40 in the Willamette.

Ballard Locks revisited

Sea lions are increasingly being fingered by fisheries professionals, not for stealing hatchery fish from anglers but because the scientists believe predation is a significant threat to protected salmon and steelhead runs.

Studies show sea lions, spread across 145 miles from the mouth of the Columbia to Bonneville, may consume an average of about 20 percent of the river's adult spring chinook, both hatchery and wild fish, each year. The estimated rate, calculated from unexplained mortality of radio-tagged fish, has climbed as high as 43 percent in 2014 and been as low as 11 percent in 2010.

Last year sea lion predation between the mouth and Bonneville may have taken 24 percent of the run or as many as 27,800 chinook. According to estimates in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, the animals consumed nearly 5,400 chinook at the dam alone, or 4.7 percent of the run.

"It could have a very significant impact on the populations at risk," Hatch said. "It's a direct loss of spawners. From that perspective, it could be the biggest mortality factor for spring chinook."

For comparison, sport anglers fishing in the lower Columbia took more than 7,100 chinook, and tribal anglers fishing between Bonneville and McNary dams took about 8,000.

Fisheries managers on the nearby Willamette River say sea lion predation there might be enough to drive the winter steelhead run to extinction. Sea lions congregate below Willamette Falls, an impressive cascade hemmed in by two shuttered paper mills on either bank. The urban river was harnessed decades ago for its hydropower, but fish ladders still provide passage for salmon and steelhead.

Just like at Bonneville Dam, the falls and ladder make hunting easy for hungry sea lions. Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife calculate the winter steelhead run there faces a 6 percent chance of extinction without sea lion predation and 90 percent with it.

"It's kind of another Ballard Locks playing out on our watch," Bowles said.

Sea lions feeding at Ballard Locks near Seattle were blamed for driving a steelhead population to extinction in the 1980s. It wasn't the only problem the fish faced. The Ballard Locks steelhead were already depleted by habitat degradation, harvest and competition from hatchery fish. But sea lions were blamed for being the final straw.

Salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake systems must also contend with multiple threats, including dams such as Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite on the Snake River. The dams impede migration, cause water temperatures to warm to lethal levels and provide ideal habitat for predatory fish like smallmouth bass, walleye and northern pikeminnow that feast on salmon and steelhead smolts.

While the agencies fight those problems, fisheries managers like Bowles wince when they see adult salmon that survived their out migration through the dams as juveniles to grow fat and strong in the ocean get thrashed and swallowed by sea lions as they make a push for spawning grounds.

"It's not the only issue or the smoking gun relative to the survival to Snake River or upper Columbia River salmon," Bowles said. "It's definitely primarily the dams and dam operations and the effects of that. But you overlay the predation on there, and it's a further effect and can mask and cloud the improvements we are trying to make in habitat and dam improvements."

Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe both favor breaching dams on the Snake River and have played central roles in successful litigation against the federal government's plan to balance dam operations with fish protections.

Cumbersome rules

Bowles said his agency is using every tool available to it on the Columbia and Willamette rivers, including capturing sea lions and hauling them back to the coast. "I don't want to say they beat the truck back, but it's close," he said. "Within three to five days, they are back in the happy hunting grounds."

His agency, along with Idaho and Washington, kills sea lions at Bonneville Dam. The problem at Ballard Locks led to an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and addition of "Section 120" allowing states to kill some sea lions if it can be shown they are having a "significant negative impact" on imperiled fish runs. The amendment allows problem sea lions to be removed while protecting the rest of the population. DeLong compares it to black bears that raid garbage cans.

"In wildlife management, these sea lions really kind of fall into the garbage can bear kind of issue," he said. "We don't take care of the garbage can bear issue by reducing the population of bears in general through some kind of cull, and it would be ineffectual to do the same with sea lions."

But the rules are cumbersome, according to Hatch and Bowles. In order to kill sea lions, the agencies must first apply to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The application is subject to public review and can take years to get approved. Once in hand, the permit doesn't allow the agencies to randomly kill sea lions. Instead it requires them to identify problem animals and only remove those.

Idaho, Oregon and Washington can kill as many as 90 California sea lions annually, a number they have yet to meet. The permit doesn't apply to Stellers, which weren't deemed a significant problem when the application was first made.

To meet the terms of the permit, the agencies capture and brand sea lions both at the dam and at Astoria, Ore., so they can be identified. To land on a lethal removal list, the branded animals must be observed at Bonneville Dam for five days, be observed eating a salmon and be subjected to hazing.

"It has to meet all three conditions, which is kind of needle in a haystack. Once it meets all three, we report to NOAA and they put the animal on the removal list and we can go ahead and remove it if we capture it again," said Shaun Clements, a senior policy adviser for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Many become trap shy after the first experience, Clements said.

Pound of cure

It hasn't always been so difficult. Begay, the Yakama nation man who piloted the hazing boat, said his grandfather told him stories about sea lions at Celilo Falls. Like Willamette Falls today, Celilo, which was swallowed in the slackwater created by The Dalles Dam, created a pinch point that made it an effective place to fish. Several Columbia River tribes congregated there to dip net and gaff salmon as they struggled to leap the falls. Sea lions also appeared at Celilo from time to time.

When they did, Begay said, the tribal fishermen took action.

"Historically they would kill them and hang them, their skins, over a rock at the point," he said. "The other sea lions would see that and leave and not come back."

In addition to serving as a deterrent, Begay said, the sea lion skins were valued as a source of waterproof clothing. Today the same tribes, including the Nez Perce, have treaty rights to fish on the Columbia River but are not authorized to kill sea lions.

A bill pending in Congress would give them the same authority as Oregon, Washington and Idaho to remove problem marine mammals. The bill, which is supported by the states and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, would also make it easier to kill sea lions. The proposal is something akin to what angler Tisdale suggested, establishing an area where sea lions are not allowed.

Sponsored by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., in the House and Idaho Republican Jim Risch in the Senate, the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to make the kill permits pertain to a place instead of individual animals. For example, Hatch said, instead of having to document a particular sea lion eating salmon or steelhead at a place like Bonneville Dam or Willamette Falls before it can be killed, the animal's mere presence there would qualify it for removal.

Bowles said if the states and tribes had that authority, they could prevent animals from becoming focused on the easy food sources. According to that theory, when the first sea lions show up at places like Bonneville Dam or Willamette Falls or any of the lower Columbia River tributaries, they could be killed before they become habituated to it and before other animals can follow them there. Fewer than 5 percent of the animals branded at Astoria ever show up at Bonneville Dam, DeLong said.

"It allows you to take action before they get a toehold and habituate and far more animals have to be dealt with. It's an ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure," Bowles said. "The current approach in Section 120 - by the time you go through all the documentation you are in the pound of cure. You potentially have to euthanize far more animals than if you just take care of the few animals that nose into areas they don't belong."

Predators or scapegoats

Of course not everyone agrees with that reasoning or that sea lions should be killed at all. Sharon Young said sea lions don't learn of good hunting spots by following other sea lions. They do it by following the fish. The field director of Marine Wildlife Protection for the Humane Society of the United States said sea lions are convenient scapegoats for anglers and fisheries agencies.

"Basically you are pointing a finger at what appears to be an easy target," Young said. "It would be nice to see some of the real proximate issues facing the fish dealt with before you point a finger at sea lions."

Young questions the science detailing the impact of sea lion predation and believes other issues like fishing, habitat degradation and dam operations should be tackled before sea lions are killed. Nor does she think killing sea lions will stop the problem.

Consider a squirrel raiding a bird feeder in a suburban yard, she said.

"If I were to kill that squirrel, it's not like another one can't find it," she said. "This is not a situation where you can kill some finite number and the problem will end. This is an open system with animals that come and go all the time."

Relative calm

Young, Bowles, Hatch and other players keep an eye on the pending legislation. Thus far Congress hasn't shown much of an appetite for the bill. It's been introduced several times and never progressed to a vote.

In the meantime, fisheries managers continue with the tools they already have. That means observing, hazing and sometimes killing sea lions. Since 2008 about 219 have been removed, including 29 this year. If there is interest, sea lions are given to zoos, but Bowles said the market is saturated and most are killed.

The removal program has saved an estimated 23,000 to 30,000 salmon and steelhead. Oregon is now seeking a kill permit for the Willamette River.

Removing sea lions to save fish has gained a level of acceptance, Bowles said.

"We've had several cycles of litigation and we have prevailed on those, and at this point in time we are operating with - I will call it social and political calm - relative to the operation. There are definitely some groups that do not support our activity, but the conservation story is pretty compelling. People, at least in this area, have gotten used to the urgency both at Bonneville and Willamette."

Eric Barker
Falling Prey
Lewiston Tribune, May 20, 2018

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