- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2007


Above the spillways of Bonneville Dam, Darrell Schmidt patrolled with his shotgun, drawing a bead on furry brown California sea lion heads popping up from the Columbia River and blasting off a beanbag round.

All spring he was part of a nonlethal, and ineffective, effort to keep the federally protected animals from gobbling threatened spring chinook salmon as they schooled up at the dam’s fish ladders en route to upriver spawning grounds.

“I got one on the back of the neck with a beanbag and he didn’t even drop the fish he was eating,” said Mr. Schmidt of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Blasts of rubber buckshot, ear-splitting pyrotechnics on the river surface and underwater firecrackers haven’t helped, either. In fact, preliminary numbers indicate the sea lions caught more salmon this season than in any of the six others since records have been kept. It is the third year wildlife officials have used nonlethal hazing to try to deter the sea lions. But nothing, it seems, trumps the allure of the fat, tasty fish.

Killing any protected marine mammal carries stiff fines and jail time. Oregon, Washington and Idaho are in the process of getting permission to kill some of the more troublesome animals under the 1972 Marine Mammals Protection Act that shields them. It could take years.

Some congressmen are trying to fast-track the process of allowing “lethal removal” of some of the worst repeat offenders.

“After trying every trick in the book, [lethal removal] is the only option left to stop the sea lions,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican.

The 1972 act protected all marine mammals, some of which needed it more than others. Robin Brown of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said perhaps 300,000 California sea lions are roaming along the Pacific Coast, about six times the number in 1972.

Oregon and Washington wildlife officials figure about 1,200 hang out around the mouth of the river. But Mr. Brown said only 100 or so regularly show up at the dam each spring.

Meanwhile, some impatient souls, probably fishermen, are beginning to apply a brand of Western justice.

A California sea lion was recently shot near Portland by a frustrated fisherman who saw it take a salmon from another fisherman’s line. The animal was seen alive a couple of days later.

Reports of sea lion shootings have increased in the past two years. In March, a half-dozen sea lions were found dead in Washington’s Puget Sound and others were found dead on beaches, said Brian Gorman of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. All had been shot.

The sea lions and their human hazers left the dam in late May, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will use the summer to look at the numbers and evaluate the hazing program. The corps doesn’t think it had any substantial effect in deterring sea lions.

The sea lions, or their relatives, in the river are nothing new. Lewis and Clark mentioned them in their journals in 1806, but fishermen say they eat too much of the threatened spring run, 4.1 percent this year by early estimates. The estimated percentage is higher than in some recent years because the salmon run was smaller.

About 16 million salmon once returned annually to the Columbia and its tributaries. Fish managers hope for a tenth of that today, and 13 salmon and steelhead species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Robert Stansell, a fish biologist at the dam, said the corps knows its tactics fall short but it needs to make a good-faith effort to prove it before taking stronger measures. Oregon has trapped a few sea lions and trucked them to the river’s mouth near Astoria, but the animals cover the 144 river miles back upriver to the dam in two days.

Many have been branded to track their movement and identify the repeat offenders. Mr. Stansell has come to know many of them. As C265 cruises by, Mr. Stansell recounts how he was trapped and weighed near the river mouth in March at 559 pounds. He was found there again after spending more than two months below the dam and weighed 1,043 pounds.

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