the film
Commentaries and editorials

The Sea Lion Dilemma:
Feast or Salmon?

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, March 23, 2008

(Rick Bowmer) Sea lion C404 is seen in the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam in this March 21, 2006 file photo, in Cascade Locks, Ore. A federal agency has authorized the killing of some California sea lions that prey on migrating salmon and steelhead at the base of Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. The hunter may soon become the hunted at Bonneville Dam.

Sea lions have in recent years converted the dam's forebay into their own salmon buffet line, but soon they may eat their last meal. Federal authorities last week granted a request by the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho to shoot California sea lions believed to be taking a chunk of salmon stocks that have already dwindled nearly to the point of extinction.

The issue pits one creature against another, but it more fundamentally raises questions about humans' role in trying to strike a balance. Ultimately, it's likely someone will sue and a judge will have to balance the provisions of the Endangered Species Act against the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In the meantime, we delve into a few of those questions:

Haven't marine mammals and salmon co-existed for eons?

They have. More than 200 years ago, the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered numerous marine mammals 200 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean at Celilo Falls, which today is submerged beneath the reservoir created by The Dalles Dam. "Great numbers of Sea Otters in the river below the falls," William Clark wrote, in an apparent misidentification of harbor seals that ranged far upriver. "I shot one in the narrow channel today." Salmon and seals were both plentiful in the river.

So, what's the problem?

Most of the salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia River are raised in hatcheries, grown and released by man to satisfy sport, commercial and tribal fishermen. This creates a huge conflict with fishermen who in some cases have fought off sea lions taking fish off their lines.

But those fish aren't endangered, are they?

No, they aren't. The Marine Mammal Protection Act only allows the lethal removal of "nuisance" sea lions that are having a "significant negative impact" on salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. Five of those imperiled populations - Snake River spring chinook, upper Columbia River chinook, Snake River steelhead, Mid-Columbia steelhead and lower Columbia River steelhead - are passing by the dam at the time the sea lions congregate in March through the end of May.

How many sea lions are there?

The population of California sea lions is thriving, with an estimated 238,000 creatures living along the West Coast. Federal experts say removing as many as 85 a year at Bonneville Dam won't hurt the population.

Why haven't we experienced this conflict before?

We have, at least with respect to harbor seals. Between 1959 and 1970, the Oregon state Fish Commission employed a seal hunter to reduce seal predation on salmon in the lower 40 miles of the river. The hunter reported killing or wounding almost 1,000 animals during those 12 years. However, a March 1972 report by the Fish Commission concluded that the hunting and a simultaneous bounty program were ineffective. The state instead encouraged commercial gillnet fishermen to take matters into their own hands, and many gillnetters carried shotguns aboard their boats.

"The incentive provided by the need to protect valuable fish in his gill net would appear much greater than the value of a bounty," according to the Fish Commission report.

Seven months later, President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, rendering the state's recommendation illegal under federal law.

What's changed recently?

Sea lions are now plentiful and salmon scarce. Since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, California sea lions are thriving and their range has expanded into the Columbia. Meanwhile, 13 stocks of Columbia basin salmon and steelhead have dwindled nearly to the point of extinction due to a history of dam-building, overharvesting and the destruction of spawning habitat due to various human endeavors.

What suddenly lured sea lions 145 miles upriver from the ocean?

No one knows for sure. Fishery managers suspect a few hungry and ambitious sea lions followed an unusually big spring chinook run as far as Bonneville Dam in 2001.

"These animals are very smart, and they're food-driven," said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In recent years, as many as 100 sea lions have been seen milling around in front of the dam, where observers with the Army Corps of Engineers documented them eating about 4,000 salmon last year - about a third of which are believed to be wild-spawning endangered salmon.

Why not simply chase the sea lions away?

State and federal authorities have bombarded the sea lions with cracker shells, rubber bullets and various other methods from the dam, from shore and from boats. U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Ken Richter, standing on the dam recently, took aim with a double-barreled shotgun filled with shells containing rubber buckshot and bean bags. "Is it effective? I don't think so. It changes their pattern for a while," Richter said.

So why bother?

State and federal authorities would have had a hard time making a legal case for killing sea lions until they'd exhausted nonlethal methods.

Is this really worth taking such extreme measures?

Sharon Young, marine issues field director of the Humane Society of the United States, contends that the proportion of salmon taken by sea lions at the dam - last year, they took about 4.2 percent of the 88,000 salmon and steelhead that arrived at the dam - does not come close to meeting the "significant adverse effect" threshold described by the Marine Mammal Protection Act for killing nuisance sea lions. She noted that state and federal fishery managers permit human fishermen an "incidental take" of 12 percent of imperiled salmon. "Why is 12 percent not significant and 4 percent is?" Young asks. "Just because they're sea lions?"

Aren't there other problems afflicting salmon?

Young and other animal-rights activists contend that killing sea lions distracts attention from salmon lost to fishing, dams and land-use practices that impinge upon their habitat. "The easy thing to do is to point finger at a natural predator and say, 'It's their fault,' " Young said.

What about long-term solutions, such as the Vancouver-area company developing an electric barrier?

Smith-Root Inc., based in Salmon Creek, has received $1.4 million in federal funding to perfect an electronic barrier that would be modulated to keep sea lions away while allowing salmon and steelhead to pass unfettered.

"We're probably a year or two off before we're going to have our technology in place," said company owner Jeff Smith.

Will killing a few creatures do any good, or will it simply move the bulk of the fish-gobbling pinnipeds downstream?

To this question, federal, state and tribal fish managers again credit the sea lions for their intelligence: Once they see the lethal consequences of eating salmon near the dam, they say, the remaining creatures will quickly learn to stay away. Salmon have a better chance to evade predators in the ocean and open river, rather than where they're most vulnerable entering artificially narrow fish ladder openings at Bonneville Dam.

"We have seen a measurable and substantial shift in numbers and behavior of sea lions at Bonneville Dam in the spring over the past five to seven years," said Brian Gorman, a NMFS spokesman in Seattle. "The question we can't answer is this: Will they just go somewhere else?"

Deadly means have been used before to guard salmon

Killing marine mammals to protect valuable salmon is nothing new in the annals of Columbia River fisheries management.

As recently as March 1972 - just seven months before President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act into law - the Fish Commission of Oregon encouraged commercial fishermen in the lower Columbia to take matters into their own hands.

"Harassment of seals by individual gillnetters in any one area is probably more effective and more frequent than that offered by the (state-hired) seal hunter," according to a Fish Commission report dated March 9, 1972.

The state's goal in the early 1970s may sound familiar to the plan to lethally remove sea lions congregating at Bonneville Dam today. The population of California sea lions has rebounded dramatically since the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Seals - not sea lions - were the problem in the early 1970s.

"The purpose of the present seal control program is to harass the seals in the Columbia River and reduce their predation on salmon in the river, particularly those in fishermen's nets," according to another Fish Commission report dated Feb. 22, 1971.

Somewhat dismissively, the report alluded to some public discomfort with the idea of shooting seals.

"We have received four letters in the last year, from the East Coast and California," according to the report. "They have criticized our agency for hiring a seal hunter and paying bounties for seals killed."

City slickers from afar weren't the only ones skeptical about the program's effectiveness, however.

While the Fish Commission report in 1972 encouraged gillnetters to shoot the seals, it also concluded that the state should get out of the seal-hunting business.

"There is no evidence that the seal hunting program and the bounty system are effectively accomplishing their intended purpose," according to the report compiled by the Fish Commission's Management and Research Division, "and there is reason to believe that the program is ineffective."

Two months later, Oregon fisheries managers began to seek nonlethal measures to keep seals from devouring salmon.

Erik Robinson
The Sea Lion Dilemma: Feast or Salmon?
The Columbian, March 23, 2008

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation