Trapping, Removing Sea Lions Moves Forwardby Grant McOmie
KATU, April 6, 2008
BONNEVILLE DAM - Sea lion advocates call it a "stay of execution" while salmon managers say it is "business as usual."
Despite the legal wrangling over the fate of up to 80 sea lions that have appetites for spring salmon, many of the animals are back eating salmon below Bonneville Dam.
While the killing of sea lions is on hold as a judge reviews the case, the state is moving forward with plans to trap and remove some of the animals this spring.
Shotgun blasts meant to scare and not to kill seem to have no effect.
"You can get them to move, you can get them to go downstream, but most of the time, they simply swim to another tailrace," said Army Corps of Engineer's Biologist Robert Stansell.
He added, "hazing sea lions hasn't made a difference on their behavior."
That's a harsh truth at Bonneville Dam, where currently 10 observers watch and a handful of "hazers" shoot cracker shells and rubber bullets to keep sea lions from eating the salmon.
Biologist Sean Tackley has a front row seat. (He is pictured below with Stansell)
He's an official observer who writes down the time and place of each animal that he sees hunting fish near the dam.
Tackley noted, "If we happen to see an individual animal catch a fish we'll note that too."
This spring he's also noted something new.
"The animals have arrived earlier and earlier each year," he said. "And I'd say this year they kind of continued that pattern."
It's a pattern that officials would like to stop.
Recently, the federal government gave permission to the states to trap and even kill sea lions that eat the most salmon.
The Humane Society of the U.S. has intervened with a lawsuit, and now it's a bit of a stalemate while a judge considers it all.
The court's ruling is expected by April 18.
Inga Gibson, a spokeswoman for the organization, said the group recently signed an agreement with the states that allows trapping - but not killing - until the judge makes a ruling.
"These animals remain on death row, regardless of the agreement," she said.
Gibson insisted that it's not the sea lions fault that people changed the river environment and made it easier for marine mammals to catch fish.
"It's habitat loss, environmental degradation, the effects of dams; multiple factors that go into salmon declines," she said. "The sea lions are scapegoats for some of these larger issues."
State biologists agree that the river has certainly changed, but scores of sea lions now eat thousands of salmon and something has to be done - especially since hazing fails at protecting the salmon.
Robin Brown, Oregon's marine mammal expert, said that it's "an unnatural situation for the fish, and the sea lions definitely take advantage of it."
He added that even though killing is off limits, the state plans to move ahead with trapping and marking sea lions this spring.
They'll use a floating dock with chain link walls. It's identical to the trap design they have used near Astoria for the past decade.
The animals use the docks to haul out of the river and rest. The docks allow the scientists to physically handle the 800-pound mammals.
In two weeks, three new traps will be installed at Bonneville Dam and allow biologists to capture, mark and perhaps even relocate some of the animals to other sites.
Brown noted that Sea World - a popular marine park - has offered to take in up to a dozen of the sea lions: "It's great that some of these facilities have stepped forward and offered to take some of the animals. We'd sure like to take advantage of that opportunity if we can."
Survival of Snake River Salmon & Steelhead data compiled by bluefish.org, July 2004
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