Anglers Seek Relief from
by Allen Thomas, Columbian staff writer
Marauding seals and sea lions are feasting on Columbia River smelt, salmon and sturgeon at horrific levels, Washington and Oregon fishery officials were told Thursday.
When smelt were in the Cowlitz River recently, a pack of eight to 10 sea lions would swoop in and "blow the smelt right off the spawning beds,'' said Bruce Crookshanks, a Cowlitz County commercial fisherman.
One after another, commercial fishermen complained about predation by marine mammals at a Thursday hearing to set salmon-fishing seasons.
Seals and sea lions are protected species under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"You've got a major predator problem,'' Crookshanks said. "The states need to raise Cain with the feds. You've got these critters going hog-wild.''
Larry Ponn, a commercial smelt buyer in Cowlitz County, agreed.
"It's just unbelievable,'' Ponn said. "Six to eight sea lions will be right underneath the boat.''
Jim Wells, president of Salmon For All, an Astoria, Ore.-based commercial fishing group, said there is no purpose in trying to net salmon downstream of the Astoria-Megler Bridge because of marine mammal predation.
Volunteer commercial fishermen test-net for spring chinook salmon with state observers aboard on Sundays and Wednesdays to get information prior to adoption of commercial fishing periods. The test fish are released.
In 12 to 16 test drifts, only one salmon and one steelhead were caught, Wells said.
"Sea lions were throwing three salmon around the boat last night,'' he said. "You can't fish around Astoria. You get eaten alive. The tribes, sports and commercial fishermen need to form a coalition.''
Gary Soderstrom of Clatskanie, Ore., president of the Columbia River Fisheries Protective Union, another commercial fishing group, also complained.
"Seals and sea lions are a horrible problem,'' Soderstrom said. "There are six sea lions near the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam. When they get around your boat, you might as well go home.''
With a huge run of spring chinook salmon just beginning to enter the Columbia, the effects of marine mammal predation this year are anticipated to be relatively minor.
(Bluefish notes: Returning adult salmon face predation by seals and sea lions at an estimated mortality rate of 1% to 1.5%. Comparable to the predation by birds, it is estimated that harbor seals may consume 14.4% of juvenile chinook.)
But Soderstrom asked what happens when runs aren't as plentiful.
"In a bad run year they (marine mammals) might get most of the run,'' he said. "They've even been observed eating sturgeon.''
Sheila Cannon, operator of The Fishery boat ramp at Dodson, Ore., in the Columbia River Gorge, recently told state officials that sea lions have been seen munching on sturgeon near Bonneville Dam.
Marine mammals preying on salmon and steelhead is a long-standing issue, but the reports of their feeding on sturgeon are relatively new.
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