Tribes Help Haze Sea Lions
by Erik Lacitis
ON THE COLUMBIA RIVER - "Twelve o'clock, two California sea lions!" yelled Richard McConville, 21 and in his second year as a fisheries technician with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
We're more than a month into this year's season of sea lions swimming up 145 miles from the mouth of the Columbia to the Bonneville Dam, and gorging themselves on salmon and steelhead that pool up near the fish ladders below the dam.
The fish have no chance against the sea lions, which have learned over the years to make the dam a destination point for the easy pickings.
But at least McConville can irritate the sea lions enough so they'll swim away from the dam -- at least for a while.
McConville was handling a shotgun that fires 12-gauge explosive "cracker shells" above the water. His brother, Michael McConville, 19, in his first year on the hazing boat, had a second shotgun. Both are members of the Warm Springs Tribe.
Their boss is Bobby Begay, 41, a Yakama tribal member at the wheel. He's the one who lights the fuse on a seal bomb and throws it out the window.
For sure, this could be frustrating work. You haze the sea lions. Then, a short time later, some of the same ones come back and begin gorging again.
In 2008, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, 103 sea lions were seen munching away below the dam, eating more than 4,200 salmon there.
Depending on the runs of salmon and steelhead, in recent years, according to the corps, sea lions kill 0.4 to 4.2 percent of the fish. That might seem to be a small percentage, but, said Rick Hargrave, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, that number only counts observations made at the dam, during daylight hours, of sea lions eating salmon on the surface of the river, not below.
Oregon and Washington, along with the corps and the tribes, formed an alliance to "remove" -- meaning, mostly, euthanize and then truck to a rendering plant in Tacoma -- the worst California sea-lion offenders.
Oregon and Washington each get $150,000 a year from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission for the hazing at Bonneville, and each state also chips in $15,000 annually to haze sea lions from attacking sturgeon. In addition, the Corps says it has invested more than $3 million for heavy bars and sonic devices to keep the sea lions out of fishways and ladders at the dam.
The tribes' role in the process is to haze. Trapping is done by the states, which then either try to find homes for the sea lions in aquariums or kill them.
"I believe it works," Begay said of the hazing. "I see the animals retreat down the river."
But the California sea lions are "kind of stubborn. They get used to the cracker shells. Sometimes they'll swim right under your boat. We joke around, they're like California people. Once they move up here, you can't keep them out."
One of the sea lions that McConville spotted is thrashing his head with a salmon in his jaws.
Richard and Michael hold their fire. Why scare off a sea lion with a meal already in its mouth? He'll drop it and just come back to get himself another fish. Let him finish this one.
Begay steers the 22-foot C-Dory fiberglass boat down the river. It's a nice day, with relatively calm waters, spots of sun, and, as Begay acknowledged, it's "kind of fun working out here."
Two kinds of sea lions make their way to Bonneville Dam.
There are the California sea lions, with males weighing up to 1,000 pounds.
Then there are the much bigger Steller's sea lions, which can weigh up to 2,500 pounds. Steller's sea lions are considered endangered and aren't euthanized, although, like the California sea lions, they can be hazed.
Only males make the trip, eating salmon to put on weight before heading to breeding grounds on the West Coast.
How easy are the pickings?
One of the California sea lions, "C265," was a particular glutton, said Robert Stansell, the supervisory fish biologist at Bonneville for the corps. (Sea lions may be tracked using several means, such as branding, tagging or specific marks on their bodies.)
In 2-1/2 months in 2007, he said, C265 ballooned to 1,043 pounds from a starting weight of 559.
In rules set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), California sea lions can be trapped and killed only if they are "highly identifiable," have been seen eating salmon or steelhead, and have been unsuccessfully hazed. Some 80 California sea lions are on this year's problem list.
According to Garth Griffin, a fisheries biologist with NOAA in Portland, the cracker shells irritate the sea lions, but don't physically hurt them.
As for the seal bombs dropped into the water 10 feet below the boat, none has been documented as hurting sea lions, Griffin said.
The program, lambasted by animal-rights groups, got off to a rocky start in 2008.
The Sea Lion Defense Brigade posts photos of the photogenic sea lions on its Web site, describing them as "beautiful, intelligent, gregarious animals."
The tribal commission does its best to tell its side, posting photos of the obese C265, and of dead salmon with one sea-lion bite in them. But salmon are not as cute as sea lions.
In that first year of the program, six sea lions were transferred to various SeaWorld facilities and are reported to be doing well.
But then bad public relations struck the agencies: Six other sea lions died of stress and heat prostration in unattended cage traps. The trapping was shut down for that year.
The traps were fixed so they couldn't close while left unattended, and 15 California sea lions were trapped in 2009, with four finding homes in zoos and aquariums, and the other 11 killed.
The infamous, gluttonous C265 was the first to be euthanized that year.
Eight California sea lions have been trapped and killed this year, as no zoos or aquariums have expressed an interest in giving them homes.
Driving them out
On this afternoon, Begay decided not to haze five Steller's he saw a few hundred yards from the dam. His boat patrolled a 5-mile stretch downstream, but the Steller's were far enough away, he decided, and he already had hazed them in the morning.
The McConville brothers spotted two Californians.
The boat neared them, and the brothers loaded the Remingtons and fired the cracker shells, dropping the used cartridges into a plastic bucket.
The shells exploded some 75 to 100 feet away. The sea lions dived into the water.
For good measure, Begay tossed one of the seal bombs into the water. "It vibrates, and there is a loud echo," he said.
The Californias reappeared some distance down the river.
Begay wrote it all down on a "Hazing Project" log.
On a typical day, the brothers shot off 180 cracker shells, and Begay dropped 20 to 25 seal bombs.
How many salmon were saved by the hazing?
It's hard to tell, Stansell said.
The hazing will last into May.
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