Sea Lions Take Toll on Salmon Survivalby Editors
Tri-City Herald, October 5, 2006
Protecting salmon runs on the Columbia River has been a controversial and hotly debated issue in the Northwest for years.
Lots of discussion revolves around anything that might impede salmon from migrating and spawning, whether the problem is man-made obstacles such as dams or the whim of Mother Nature.
Now, Oregon and Washington are attempting to take on a threat to salmon that is both natural and man-made -- sea lions feasting at dams and locks.
The pesky sea lions, including one particularly notorious pinniped known as C404, are picking off fish during the spring Chinook salmon run.
C404's favorite hunting ground is the fish ladder at the Bonneville Dam in Cascade Locks, Ore., and he's proved determined to make the most of it.
The sea lions also congregate at the mouth of the Columbia and catch fish headed to spawn as well as those bound for the ocean.
We're not opposed to the circle of life. Sea lions eat salmon. It's part of the deal. But when they use a man-made fish ladder as a feeding ground, it hardly seems natural.
C404 and other sea lions like him are harming salmon runs, one noteworthy enough that the states feel they must take action. By some estimates, seals and sea lions consume about 2.7 million pounds of salmon per year.
Damage caused by seals and sea lions is another factor. A National Marine Fisheries Service report showed 80 percent of the returning salmon had "mammal scars." Such injuries can dramatically reduce a salmon's chance of spawning.
California sea lions are not endangered -- the number of sea lion pups born each year has tripled over the past 30 years. However, they are protected in U.S. waters by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
So Washington and Oregon are drafting a proposal for "limited selected lethal removal" of sea lions in the Columbia River to help the spring Chinook run. The proposal will go to the federal government for approval. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Columbia River tribes are involved in the process as well.
C404's days could be numbered. It's unfortunate, but they should be.
If fish and wildlife officials can cite a negative effect on the salmon run, they should be able to remove sea lions found to be repeat offenders, even if that means killing the culprits.
The Humane Society is already on record as opposing the idea. We're sure other animal rights groups and perhaps classes of school children will campaign to save C404 and his cohorts.
But salmon recovery is a serious issue. Upper Columbia spring Chinook are listed as an endangered species; sea lions are not.
In fact, they're pests in many ports. In California, the fish and game department estimates the sportfishing industry loses more than $7 million per year in damages caused by sea lions that swipe gear, bait and fish from anglers -- sometimes right off the hook.
A large sea lion can sink a small boat if it boards it. Sea lions have taken over docks and sunk them, causing marinas to abandon them.
This isn't the first time states have asked for help with nuisance sea lions. Washington received a permit to kill sea lions that were damaging the steelhead run at the Ballard Locks a decade ago. Though the most notorious sea lions were caught and sent to a Florida aquarium instead, the federal government did give the go-ahead for lethal removal.
If the states have exhausted their options for removing or deterring the sea lions, they should be allowed to put a permanent end to the problem.
If people can seriously consider dam removal and the havoc that would bring to the Northwest economy as a means to protect salmon in the Columbia River, killing a few sea lions seems like a much more rational solution.
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