Once-starving Seals, Sea Lions Swarm
by Edward Stratton
Increasing numbers of pinnipeds, driven by starvation in California
to the healthy smelt and salmon runs in the Columbia River...
ASTORIA -- Humans, sea lions and seals alike are sharing in the bounty of the Columbia River.
Flying over the Desdemona Sands during a telemetry survey, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife caught a photo of what appears to be fish washed up at low tide.
It's not unusual, according to state fish and wildlife biologist Steve Jeffries, to see 4,000 to 5,000 of them hauled out on Desdemona, between the Astoria Bridge and Hammond in the Columbia River. From Netarts north to Grays River, Washington, the population is close to 15,000 strong.
"They've been moving seasonally into the Columbia River in response to smelt runs forever," he said.
During a Feb. 11 aerial survey, Washington wildlife officials also counted more than 1,200 California sea lions at the East End Mooring Basin, along with nearly 600 Steller and California sea lions on the South Jetty. On Friday, spokeswoman Jessica Sall of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said her agency counted 2,340 California sea lions at the East End Mooring Basin.
Increasing numbers of pinnipeds, driven by starvation in California to the healthy smelt and salmon runs in the Columbia River, have put a strain on the Port of Astoria's infrastructure and created enmity between fishers, conservationists and fishery agencies.
In 2010, Pacific smelt, known as eulachon, were deemed threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Since that designation, they're been allowed for commercial and recreational harvest in the past two years only. Fisheries managers estimated 200 million smelt returning to the Columbia in 2014 and a similarly strong run this year.
And sea lions reserved their spot at the dinner table.
Their seats are largely at the Port's East End Mooring Basin, which has two docks for boats, and two unofficially for sea lions, that also cover the rock breakwaters surrounding the marina. Fisheries agencies counted 1,256 California sea lions there Feb. 11; 1,649 Feb. 20; 1,211 March 2; and 2,340 on Friday, which Sall said was an all-time high.
"I think that will be telling once the smelt run is done, how many sea lions leave," Sall said. "They're already tapering off."
But even when the smelt are gone, an estimated 312,600 adult spring chinook salmon are expected to provide a continuing food source. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report in October showed a decrease in chinook salmon survival from 90 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2014. It compared the decrease in survival with a more than 670 percent increase in sea lion populations counted by Oregon wildlife officials in Astoria between March 15 and May 15 over the same years.
Amid the issues of sea lion predation, the Port has maintained it only wants to keep sea lions from damaging its docks; it estimates the animals have caused more than $100,000 in damage to utilities and the docks themselves.
It has removed docks, disconnected utilities from the two that the sea lions inhabit and strung brightly colored surveying tape, which has effectively dissuaded the animals from jumping onto the two docks with boats still tied to them.
"There's a public health issue," said Permit and Project Manager Robert Evert about fecal coliform in the water and the mounds of feces with the ringworm fungus that Port staff clean up off docks.
The Port has looked into galvanized steel railings -- for years now -- to keep sea lions from jumping up on docks. There is 5,000 feet to cover on the Port's three docks at the basin, Operations Manager Matt McGrath said at a March 17 Port Commission meeting. The railings have worked in San Diego, but would cost $50,000. Evert added the Port will be meeting with Smith-Root Fisheries Technology next week, which creates a low-voltage matting for docks that is uncomfortable forsea lions.
For several years, the Sea Lion Defense Brigade has kept a regular presence at the basin, monitoring ODFW's trapping and branding and reporting on its Facebook page. Members snap photos of visitors who drop by to see sea lions and regularly attend Port meetings to testify on behalf of pinnipeds.
"I want to talk about sharing on the second biggest river in North America," Ninette Jones, brigade member, told the Port Commission March 17, after being told she couldn't comment a second time on sea lions.
Brigade members see sea lions as a scapegoat for larger issues, such as pollution, climate change, overfishing and thousands of miles of blocked fish passages. They've claimed that Sea Shepherd Conservation Society once offered to pay for a sea lion haul-out, although the Port has previously denied being offered funding. Regardless of whether they're hauling out on Port docks or their own haul-out, Evert said, letting them on docks is akin to domesticating a wild animal.
The Port started shutting down the causeway to the East End Mooring Basin when ODFW is trapping and branding sea lions to track them, a practice authorized in 2012 by NOAA and not as deadly as the euthanizations at Bonneville Dam, but nonetheless controversial. Tensions over the practice came to a near boiling point Feb. 18, according to ODFW.
Sall said a visitor to the basin had been approached by a branding protester. The visitor then approached and harassed the ODFW employee, she said, before threatening to grab a shotgun and shoot her. Sall said ODFW reported the incident to the Oregon State Police, which couldn't be reached for comment by press time.
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