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All They Can Eat

by Ben Jacklet
Portland Tribune, Apr 22, 2005

Sea lions scarf spring salmon, frustrating anglers and scientists

(L.E. Baskow photo) Sea Lions at the Bonneville Dam spillway are dining on chinook salmon and whatever else they can catch.  The job is even easier now that sport fishing has been stopped on the stretch of the Columbia River. Nancy Hartman and Ralph Sirianni were gearing up for a morning of fishing on the Willamette River when the subject of sea lions came up.

"It used to be a big deal to see one in the Willamette," Hartman said. "Now it's like, 'Oh, no, not another one!'

"I wish they would stay in the ocean, but what are you gonna do?"

"Shoot 'em," Sirianni suggested.

The sea lions have been the talk of Portland's rivers this spring, ever since a plucky pinniped nicknamed Cecil figured out how to swim into the fish ladder at the Bonneville Dam to chow down on chinook salmon. Much to the chagrin of fishermen and wildlife biologists, dozens of sea lions have been steadily working the spillway at Bonneville in the Columbia River and roaming the Willamette from Kelley Point to Willamette Falls, nabbing every chinook they can get their teeth on.

Given the paltry nature of the spring chinook run thus far, some salmon experts are labeling the sea lions a serious problem that needs to be dealt with immediately. Others play down the whole thing.

"The sea lions got wise to a great food source upriver," said Joe Whitworth, executive director of Oregon Trout. "You can't blame a sea lion for chasing a salmon. That's their job."

But their clever adaptation has not endeared the sea lions to fishermen, or to wildlife biologists working on a multiagency, multimillion-dollar recovery effort. The frustration of the groups is growing this spring as a result of the lack of fish. The spring chinook run had been predicted at 250,000 fish, but so few have shown up that the state took the unusually early step of shutting down tribal and sport fishing on the Columbia this week.

The Willamette stayed open, but fishing was slow on a recent morning for the dozens of boats congregated around the Sellwood Bridge and upstream near the confluence of the Clackamas River.

While fishermen cursed their luck, a pair of sea lions hunted for salmon in the current near Willamette Falls, then frolicked in the gentle water downstream.

Some of the anglers complained of sea lions stealing salmon off their hooks.

"There's not much you can do about it," said lifelong Willamette fisherman Dennis Pratt. "They take a bite, and all you get back is the head or the jaw."

Sea lion numbers swell

Almost all of the pinnipeds chasing salmon in the Willamette and Columbia are male California sea lions, a playful species that sometimes stars as the "trained seal" at the circus. Unlike salmon, they are highly adaptable and thriving. Their population has roughly tripled since they were granted protection under the federal Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972.

California sea lions can dive to 500 feet, swim up to 25 miles per hour and weigh up to 800 pounds.

And they really like to eat. According to a study by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers biologist Robert Stansell, sea lions at Bonneville Dam killed 3,872 salmonids in 2004, or 2 percent of the spring run.

Stansell's report found that the number of sea lions spotted at Bonneville increased from 30 in 2002 to more than 100 in 2003.

With each animal killing up to 10 salmon per day, those numbers can add up in a hurry. And they don't sit well with the sport fishermen who are out there getting skunked. Some long for the old-fashioned solution a shotgun. Others say they don't begrudge the sea lions for trying to survive.

Both sides agree that the problem seems worse in the year when the fish don't seem to be showing up.

"Everybody's mad about the sea lions, but if there were more fish being caught no one would be complaining about them," said fisherman Doug Burnam.

Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission, isn't so sure about that. He points out that 2 percent of the run seems small until you consider that the government spends millions to increase the salmon run by 1 percent.

"We are very concerned about what appears to be a growing problem of aggressive behavior by these sea lions in the Lower Columbia and especially at Bonneville Dam," Hudson said. "We need to get them out of these sensitive areas."

The ongoing feeding frenzy at Bonneville has prompted biologists to find creative new ways to harass the sea lions there. They've been shooting fireworks and noisemakers over the heads of repeat eaters and are planning to install acoustical "pinging" devices that scare away sea lions with high-pitched clicking noises that are above the register that fish and humans can hear.

They're hoping they will have more luck scaring off the predators than did scientists in Seattle. When California sea lions started wiping out the last of the steelhead trout running through the Ballard Locks, Seattle wildlife biologists counterattacked with irritating noises and electrical barriers, and even trapped the sea lions and shipped them out of town only to have them swim back and resume eating. Eventually biologists got permission to kill five sea lions, but Sea World intervened on behalf of the marine mammals.

The effort to preserve that run of fish in Seattle ultimately failed, but it was a far smaller run than the Columbia spring chinook run.

Come and get it!

Oregon Trout's Whitworth said it would be absurd to blame sea lions for the fall of the Columbia chinook, because the problem is clearly man-made.

"The fact is, we have created the perfect nuisance conditions for a sea lion," Whitworth said. "You put an incredible barrier across the river, and then you pump in millions of tons of salmon biomass via hatcheries every year. Of course the sea lions are going to come."

Whitworth said the recent focus on the sea lions obscures larger and more important salmon issues such as flow rates, food availability and the negative impacts of hatchery fish on wild fish. "If we had everything else fixed, sea lions might be worth talking about," he said.

Whether they're worth talking about or not, sea lions are definitely the subject of many a heated debate on the waterfront these days. Like urban crows, they are often cursed, but they are also respected as proven survivors.

Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, said that in his view, sea lions add diversity to the local ecosystem:

"The fact that we're still able to see sea lions swimming up to Willamette Falls gives you a healthy respect for the wildlife that we have in the river."

Ben Jacklet
All They Can Eat
Portland Tribune, Apr 22, 2005

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