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Sea Lion Hazing Planned at Bonneville

by Allen Thomas
The Columbian, March 23, 2006

A one-chinook daily bag limit in the beefed-up campaign to haze sea lions in the Columbia River near Bonneville Dam will begin on April 1.

Washington and Oregon officials will focus their efforts to disperse the salmon- and sturgeon-devouring marine mammals from Bonneville to Light 85, a navigation marker on the Washington shore 12 miles to the west.

"The states will be using every hazing method available to us under federal law, including acoustic and percussive devices, flares and rubber bullets,'' said Steve Williams, acting administrator of the fish division of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As many as 1,000 sea lions entered the Columbia River in 2005, munching on spring chinook salmon, particularly at the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam. This year, sea lions also are eating adult female sturgeon.

Sea lions also have entered the North Fork of the Lewis River and been spotted at Merwin Dam.

A year ago, research by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed marine mammals ate 3.4 percent of the spring chinook run trying to pass Bonneville Dam.

With a return of only 88,400 upper Columbia spring chinook predicted, it is feared sea lions might kill as much as 10 percent of the run.

Sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

A year ago, state and federal biologists experimented for two days with hazing at Bonneville Dam.

The sea lions were driven off temporarily, but returned within a day.

"Bonneville is where the conflict is most visual for most people,'' said Garth Griffin, branch chief, Office of Protect Resources, of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland. "Last year, of course, was the highlight. And the highlight of the highlight was when a sea lion was looking out at visitors looking in through the fish-counting window. That really put this thing out in front of the public.''

Sea lions eating adult sturgeon while waiting for the spring chinook run to arrive has the states particularly worried.

"Sea lions have the potential to severely deplete mature female sturgeon, which are their preferred prey,'' Williams said. "Those sturgeon represent the future of the species.''

Many sport and commercial fishermen want problem sea lions killed, but "lethal removal'' is almost impossible under the 1972 act.

Friday in Newport, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission directed its staff to begin the process of applying for authority under Section 120 of the act to lethally remove specific nuisance animals.

Section 120 is called the "Ballard Locks amendment,'' created after the infamous sea lion Hershel and his buddies wiped out the wild winter steelhead run passing through the Seattle locks on their way to the Cedar River.

It is a time-consuming and controversial process.

"We urge people looking for a quick fix to this problem to be realistic,'' said Marla Rae, chair of the Oregon commission. "This process is neither quick, nor a good permanent fix. Resolving the sea lion issue and protecting Oregon's fish stocks will require an act of Congress, not an act of this commission. However, we realize this is a serious problem and seeking federal authority to manage it is an important step in the right direction.''

Jeff Koenings, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said sea lion predation is getting worse.

"We're concerned about balance in the Columbia River,'' Koenings said. "An overly robust population of California sea lions is preying on a weak population of wild salmon and steelhead. We need to pursue an active management approach that restores balance to the river system.''

Did you know?

An adult sea lion typically eats five to seven salmon a day.

Sea lion predation at Bonneville Dam was estimated at just 0.3 percent of the run five years ago.

Allen Thomas, Staff Writer
Sea Lion Hazing Planned at Bonneville
The Columbian, March 23, 2006

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