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Ravaged by Sea Lions

by The Columbian
The Daily News of Longview Washington, February 18, 2005

Sea lions killed nearly twice as much of the spring chinook run immediately downstream of Bonneville Dam in 2004 as the year before, according to a federal study.

Though biologists don't expect the situation to improve, they point out that any suggestion to reduce protection for marine mammals in the Columbia won't swim well with people in other parts of the country.

Three years of research found sea lions ate more upper Columbia River spring chinook each year from 2002 through 2004.

Observers counted 31 California sea lions in 2002, but the tally jumped to 111 in 2003 and 105 in 2004. The actual count is probably 10 percent higher.

The maximum count in a given day jumped from 14 sea lions in 2002 to 32 in 2003 and 37 in 2004.

An estimated 929 spring chinook and steelhead were killed between Jan. 1 and May 31 in 2002. That computes to 0.3 percent of the Bonneville Dam count for that species.

But in 2003, the estimated kill by sea lions was 2,394, or 1.1 percent of the run. Last year, the kill was 3,872 fish, which computes to 2 percent of the run.

Robert J. Stansell, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fish biologist at Bonneville Dam, said the study is not continuing in 2005.

Three types of marine mammals harbor seals, California sea lions and stellar sea lions are found in the Columbia River. All are safeguarded under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Stellar sea lions are gold or silver in the water and larger than California sea lions.

Ninety-nine percent of the marine mammals at Bonneville Dam are California sea lions, said Robin Brown of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The population has been increasing at a rate of about 5 percent a year. In Oregon, there are 6,000 to 8,000 California sea lions, compared to counts of 2,000 to 3,000 in the mid-1980s, Brown said.

"These have caused the most grief for sport and commercial fishermen, boat owners, private and public marina operators and so on,'' he said. "The California sea lion is the smaller sea lion. They are brown or black in the water. They're the ones who do the barking. They tend not to be very afraid of people. They are very bold and very quick to learn new activities and new places to hang out.''

California sea lions arrive at Bonneville Dam in late February and leave about mid-May. The population convenes on breeding grounds near Santa Barbara, Calif., in June and July.

California sea lions put on quite a show when they kill a salmon or steelhead, frequently tossing it in the air and attracting a swarm of gulls.

Gary Soderstrom of the Columbia River Fisheries Protective Union, a commercial fishing group, said marine mammal predation is a serious concern.

"You see 2 percent of the fish run disappearing in one small little area,'' Soderstrom said about Bonneville Dam. "I sport fish all up and down the river, gill net all up and down the river. I've seen certain areas like Miller Sands and Rice Island where as soon as the tide slows there's nothing but fish flying in the air, sometimes three or four at a time.''

Brown said it is hard to know what percentage of the runs marine mammals kill, but it's more than 2 percent.

"We're not trying to imply it's not many times higher than that if you could somehow estimate the total in the river system,'' he said.

But to do an estimate for the entire lower Columbia River would be very expensive, necessitating hundreds of boats and observers, Brown added.

Steve Watrous of the Columbia-Pacific Anglers said the 2 percent predation rate at Bonneville Dam is alarming.

"Two percent is equal to what we're allowed in the complete spring fishery,'' he said. "As little as two-tenths of 1 percent would free up our fishery to the point we wouldn't be fighting with the commercials or the tribes.''

Brown said the sea lion population at Willamette Falls peaked in 2000, but has dropped.

"The number of animals started going down, and where we believe they started going was Bonneville,'' he said.

Steve Jeffries of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the entire population of California sea lions on the West Coast was 10,000 in the 1950s and 300,000 now.

"I would predict the situation in the Columbia River and the impacts of California sea lions on returning spring chinook is not going to get any better,'' Jeffries said.

"That's our concern,'' Soderstrom said. "We've had the luxury of big salmon runs the past years, but what happens when that spring run drops to 50,000 or 60,000 fish and they start taking 30 percent to 40 percent? You've watched how they learn. We have, too.''

Jeffries said marine mammal management is highly controversial, and he should know: He was at the center of the media circus involving the infamous sea lion named Herschel and his pals at the Ballard Locks in Seattle.

The Cedar River winter steelhead run is down to fewer than 50 fish after years of unsuccessful attempts to deter those sea lions in Seattle.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act does not allow the killing of the animals. Amendments in 1994 permit non-lethal deterrence, but not the killing and removal of problem animals, said Brent Norberg of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The act protects marine mammals until the population returns to an "optimum sustainable population,'' which never has been clearly defined.

Jeffries said wildlife agencies wish they had the ability to act when a few problem marine mammals are decimating a weak stock of fish.

But talk of killing marine mammals immediately sparks a response from national animals rights groups, he said.

"All of the agencies have been a little bit hesitant to engage in the management of marine mammals because it's so ugly,'' Jeffries said.

"It's a very politically charged issue.''

It is a thankless task for a Northwest lawmaker to challenge the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Brown said.

"It's an incredible uphill battle for one of our federal legislators to stand up in front of all the rest of the country and say we want to change this law and go out and remove a few sea lions here and there,'' Brown said.

"All the other legislators across the country, their constituents support the protection.''

Jeffries cautioned Columbia River fishing interests from attacking the main tenets of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"What would suit us fine would be a management tool we could apply, an exemption to allow resource agencies to act in a timely manner to deal with it without having to go through a long, timely process.''

And if salmon and steelhead were not enough, sea lions are developing a taste for sturgeon, said Sheilla Cannon, operator of The Fishery, a boat ramp on the Oregon side of the Columbia River across from Beacon Rock.

"I've stood on the bank and watched sea lions tearing sturgeon apart,'' Cannon said. "I've seen five or six sea lions working on one oversize sturgeon. Now we have another predator attacking our sturgeon.''

Brown said sea lions feasting on sturgeon shows the animal's adaptability.

"I think it's another example of what these animals are capable of doing in the way of learning and taking advantage of different resources,'' he said.


Marine mammals at a glance

Average sea lion population at Bonneville Dam per day

2002 -- 4.4

2003 -- 13.3

2004 -- 13.7

Estimated salmon/steelhead kill at Bonneville Dam

2002 -- 929 (0.3 percent of the run)

2003 -- 2,394 (1.1 percent of the run)

2004 -- 3,872 (2 percent of the run)

NOAA Fisheries advice to anglers The federal Marine Mammals Protection Act allows sport fishermen to deter a seal or sea lion from damaging their catch or gear, so long as the measures do not result in death or serious injury to the animal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries section is developing guidelines. Until those are complete, the agency is offering the following interim advice:

The Columbian
Ravaged by Sea Lions
The Daily News, February 18, 2005

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