Sea Lions' Fishing Prowess
by Bill Monroe
Bret McCormick of Portland might be the year's first angler to lose a fish to a sea lion on the Columbia River. "We had a 30-incher on, about six feet behind the boat and suddenly a sea lion came out of nowhere," McCormick said. "They don't look too big from a distance, but up close they're monsters."
McCormick, his son Clint and two friends were fishing Jan. 8 in the gorge below Bonneville Dam. "It was a catch-and-release day, but we didn't care," Bret McCormick said. "We just wanted to get out of the house. I'm from Texas and it's so extraordinary to just get out on a day like that with the river all to yourself."
(For the record, McCormick said they caught and released 55 under-sized sturgeon and lost one to a sea lion). He said they saw three sea lions that day, all of which were feeding on sturgeon and one of which tackled an oversized fish that probably was old enough to spawn. The zone below the dam is the Columbia's primary spawning water for sturgeon and is largely a protection area when 7- to 10-footers and larger gather to reproduce in late spring.
"They come exploding from the water, tossing those big ones in the air," McCormick said of the sea lions. "They were not working together. Seagulls circled each one of them like they were bait balls. It was a continual feeding cycle."
Depredation of salmon by harbor seals and California sea lions has been a hot button for anglers and commercial fishermen the past several years as populations of the animals rose to an estimated several hundred or more.
Like other large mammals, they learn quickly and bring others with them.
In 2005, for the first time and possibly because of an overdue and lower spring chinook run than expected, sea lions (not as many seals) turned on sturgeon for the first time.
And not just any sturgeon.
By the end of spring, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife documented 14 cases of large spawning sturgeon taken by sea lions in or near the sanctuary. And biologists acknowledge those were just the ones verified by department employees.
There could have been many others.
This winter, again for the first time, a few sea lions entered the lower Columbia by early December and have been seen throughout the lower river (there's one unconfirmed report of a sea lion-like animal in a duck-hunting lake on Sauvie Island during the recent high water).
There remains little recourse for state and federal managers under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, said Steve Williams, assistant chief of the fish division of the state fish and wildlife department.
Sea lions have the growing attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, departments of fish and wildlife in Washington and Oregon, National Marine Fisheries Service and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. But Williams called the official process to persuade the rest of the nation (through Congress) to allow killing offending animals an "onerous task."
When will "onerous" be trumped by a precipitous enough decline in large spawners to make the task more worthwhile?
"That's an excellent question," Williams said. "I can't answer that question. The minute you move away from the Northwest and mention sea lions, people's eyes glaze over."
Williams said, however, that the department will concentrate harder on its observations this winter and spring.
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