Hazing Sea Lions To Protect Salmon
by Sadie Babits
Oregon Public Broadcasting, May 20, 2009
Bonneville Dam - Since early March, the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho have had federal permission to kill sea lions that prey on endangered salmon in the Columbia River.
The animals congregate near the Bonneville Dam, where salmon make for easy targets.
So far, wildlife managers have euthanized 10 sea lions. But there's also an effort underway to protect the salmon through hazing their predators.
Sadie Babits went out on the Columbia River to observe these scare tactics first-hand.
Bobby Begay steers his small boat up the Columbia River. His ties to the salmon here go back generations. As a member of the Yakima Tribe, he comes out here to tribal fishing sites to catch salmon.
Like his ancestors before him, he considers the salmon to be sacred food.
Bobby Begay: "It's part of our livelihood. It's part of our health and well being."
Tribal fishermen tell stories of seeing so many salmon in the Columbia River that you could walk across their backs.
Those days are gone. A series of dams on the river make it hard for fish to get from the Pacific Ocean to fresh water and back again. The salmon have fallen victim to over fishing, agricultural pollution, and habitat destruction.
Pacific salmon are now listed as endangered. And they face yet another threat on the Columbia River - sea lions.
Bobby Begay: "Sea lions have probably always been in the Columbia but not to this extent and have done damage to salmon populations like it has and all of it is due because of a manmade structure which is Bonneville Dam."
Sea lion numbers have exploded along the Pacific Coast. And more than a thousand of them travel up the Columbia River looking for food.
Some of them have figured out that if they gather at the base of Bonneville Dam, they can easily catch salmon that are trying to pass by.
Biologists estimate that every year sea lions eat as many as 4000 salmon here at the dam.
This year, the federal government gave state wildlife agencies in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, the go-ahead to kill as many as 85 sea lions.
Begay won't really talk about whether he thinks this is right. He's torn.
Bobby Begay: "Well, ah the sea lion is a spiritual animal not only to us but to coastal tribes and we respect the animal as it is but also the salmon is a scared food to us as Columbia River Indians."
So Begay works to protect the salmon without killing the sea lions. He works for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. That's why he's out here in this boat. He patrols the river most days using fireworks to scare sea lions away from the salmon.
Boat crew: "There he is 1 o'clock! 50 yards!"
Begay's crew shoots firecrackers over the sea lion.
Bobby Begay: "And hopefully we'll get them into the main stem of the river and start hazing them down stream."
Robin Brown: "The hazing really is not highly effective. The animals are really quick to learn."
Robin Brown is a marine mammal researcher for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It's his agency that makes the call on whether to euthanize a sea lion. He says that step comes only after all else has failed.
Robin Brown: "We have to have observed them killing salmon and steelhead and they have to have been exposed to all the non lethal methods of harassment that you've observed here today and shown that that isn't detouring them from being here and feeding."
The Humane Society opposes killing the sea lions. It continues to ask the courts to put a stop to it in the future.
While this legal battle plays out, Bobby Begay will keep hazing the sea lions in the coming years. But for now it's getting to be the time of year when the sea lions start heading back down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast to breed.
To learn more about the problem between sea lions and salmon visit the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Visit the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to read daily updates on trapping sea lions.
To watch and count salmon coming to the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam visit the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers site.
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