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Salmon and Sea Lions, a Sad Situation

by Mike Stahlberg
The Register-Guard, December 11, 2007

Don't mean to be a Grinch, but spring chinook fishing in the Willamette Basin looks to be even sorrier next year than it was in 2007.

To make matters worse, the sad saga of salmon vs. sea lions in the Columbia River looks as if it's not going to be resolved any time soon.

The official forecast for the 2008 Willamette spring chinook run is awaiting some tweaking before a formal announcement, probably later this week. But it's already clear that another bad year looms for inland salmon anglers.

We know this because the main component in any salmon forecast is the number of "jacks" returning the prior year.

Jacks -- sexually immature males that return from the sea earlier than their age-class brethren -- showed up at Willamette Falls Fish Passage in record-low numbers in 2006, and 2007's count was only marginally better.

"That's probably going to mean a lower run no matter how you slice it," said John North, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Columbia River fisheries manager.

"Lower run" means something south of the 40,000 adult spring chinook that returned to the mouth of the Willamette River in 2007, which was the third-smallest run in 44 years.

I look for the 2008 projection to be at least as low as the 35,000 fish we saw in 1996 and 1997, and wouldn't be surprised to see something in the neighborhood of 30,000.

The "jack" count at Willamette Falls this spring was 280, second-lowest in history. Only the 2006 number was lower.

"Your age 4 and 5 fish are coming back off of those guys, so that doesn't bode well," said North. A very low forecast could trigger some "constraints" on sport fishing in the lower Willamette and Columbia rivers next spring, he said.

Mysteriously, the severe drop-off involves only hatchery fish from the Willamette River, not their "upriver" cousins that continue up the Columbia River.

Last spring's upriver run exceeded projections (86,000 fish returned) and will likely be even better in 2008, as jack counts were about 18 percent higher than the year before.

"I don't know what's happened on the Willamette," North said. "Usually, we blame everything on the ocean."

But in this case, ocean conditions are obviously the same for both stocks of spring chinook.

"We don't have any good solid evidence of where the mortality is taking place," said Jeff Ziller, the ODFW district fishery biologist for the South Willamette watershed district.

In any event, it's a good thing there will be plenty of salmon in the Columbia next spring, because it appears there will again be way too many sea lions waiting for them with mouths agape.

Anglers frustrated by the sight of salmon being wolfed down by California sea lions had reason for hope earlier this year when Oregon, Washington and Idaho fishery officials sought permission to lethally remove sea lions preying on salmonids in the Columbia River.

Seals and sea lions are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, while many of the salmon being eaten by marauding pinnipeds are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

After trying for two years, without success, to haze sea lions away from the thousands of spring chinook salmon and steelhead that mass below Bonneville Dam before moving up through the dam's fish ladders, the states and the Columbia River tribes applied for permission to remove individual sea lions, by lethal means if necessary.

But, according to a recent Columbia Basin Bulletin report, the federal Marine Mammal Commission is calling for more analysis to document the sea lions' impact on endangered fish. Also, the commission said, better criteria is needed to specify exactly which individual sea lions should be removed. MMC's opposition could easily mean more delays in the start of sea lion removal.

Only lethal taking of "individually-identifiable" animals having "a significant negative impact on the decline of fishery stocks can be authorized," said Timothy Ragen, executive director of the MMC, in a letter to the regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries Service. NOAA is scheduled to issue a decision on the states' application in March.

A task force convened by NOAA last month recommended allowing the killing on the spot of any sea lions seen eating salmon in a "protected area" immediately downstream of the dam.

In addition, "notorious" sea lions (defined as identifiable individuals that have been observed taking a minimum of 30 salmon, or which have been observed in the area in at least three different years) would be fair game anywhere.

The task force said its goal was to reduce salmonid losses to sea lions immediately below Bonneville Dam to about 1 percent of the runs.

Last spring, observed predation in the protected area accounted for an estimated 4 percent of the total run. The extent of predation in the 140 miles between the mouth of the Columbia and the protected area is unknown.

Meanwhile, in a separate development, Oregon and Washington fishery crews are about to resume nonlethal hazing of Steller sea lions to deter them from feeding on white sturgeon in the Columbia River.

While it hasn't kept California sea lions from preying on salmon, hazing with acoustic and percussive devices, flares and rubber bullets has generally been effective against Steller sea lions.

"White sturgeon do not reach maturity until they are 12 to 20 years old, and Steller sea lions tend to target the larger and older sturgeon," said Charlie Corrarino, ODFW Conservation and Recovery Program manager.

"We need to protect these fish because they are broodstock for future generations of sturgeon."

Steller sea lions ate more than 350 white sturgeon near Bonneville Dam last winter, but took only 19 after hazing began in March, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Fifty-five of the sturgeon taken last year were over five feet long, some carrying millions of eggs.

Mike Stahlberg
Salmon and Sea Lions, a Sad Situation
The Register-Guard, December 11, 2007

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