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Fishermen's Nemesis Seems to Eat Up Role

by Peter Sleeth
The Oregonian, May 6, 2006

Hazing sea lions just makes them hungry for more Columbia salmon, biologists say

They are the Rodney Dangerfields of the river -- they get virtually no respect.

Several dozen sea lions chomping on salmon Friday below Bonneville Dam were shot at with rubber bullets, harassed with firecrackers and chased by shotgun-toting state agents. The words most fishermen use for sea lions are not printable here.

Yet like the comedian, the sea lions seem to be getting the last laugh.

The non-lethal forms of harassment temporarily faze the pinnipeds, who dive when the boats approach, only to resurface minutes later. Frequently, they hold a spring chinook salmon in their jaws.

Now, to everyone's amazement, biologists believe the sea lions actually eat more when they are hazed.

"They are very crafty," said Charles Hudson, who was hazing Friday with other members of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We were able to run several a couple miles downriver, but just as soon as you return, there is another one or two or three."

Robert Stansell, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Bonneville Dam, said the sea lions probably eat more because any of them lounging on shore leap into the water when the hazing boats appear. Then, being marine mammals, they start fishing again.

The annual run of spring chinook is finally moving through Bonneville Dam, although later than anyone can remember and in much smaller numbers than are normal for this time of year.

On Thursday, about 2,100 fish made the run through the fish ladders. However, the 10-year average for the same date calls for about 6,000 fish daily to pass through the dam. So far this year, about 15,500 salmon have passed through the dam. By April 30 last year, 31,393 chinook had.

That makes concern about the sea lions and their catch all the more urgent. The swarm of about 20 to 40 that have been loitering below dam this season have gobbled as many as 122 salmon a day.

Although Washington and Oregon have been asking -- informally -- for permission to shoot and kill troublesome sea lions at the dam, the chances of the states' gaining approval are slim. Sea lions are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.

At best, it could be two to four years before the U.S. commerce secretary would grant such a request, said Charlie Corrarino, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The state must first show it has tried everything else to make the sea lions go away.

California sea lions, which are currently at the dam, come from waters off the Southern California coast, principally the Channel Islands facing Santa Barbara. In late spring, they will return there after dining along the Oregon and Washington coasts.

For lovers of the sought-after spring run of chinook salmon, the pinnipeds cannot leave soon enough. From tribes upriver, to sport and commercial fishermen alike, everyone seems to want the sea lions to leave.

Biologists estimated 88,000 chinook would enter the mouth of the Columbia River in April and May, but many worry now the run may be much smaller. And the sea lions' share could be proportionately larger than the 3 percent to 4 percent they took at the dam last year.

Last week, as the 800-pound, inky-black mammals lounged in the fierce gray-green currents below the dam, they seemed to have no worry about fish counts or wildlife protection. Occasionally a sea lion would rise with a salmon in its mouth, then, with a fierce flick of its head, break the neck of the salmon and eat.

Today, the hazing boats are scheduled to continue their work.

Peter Sleeth
Fishermen's Nemesis Seems to Eat Up Role
The Oregonian, May 6, 2006

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