November 18, 2005

Surge in sea lion numbers angers fishermen

By Timothy Gardner

ASTORIA, Ore (Reuters) - A state employee wielding a wooden
club walked the slippery docks looking for a sea lion oozing
blood from a gunshot wound.

"Have you seen the stinky one?" the Oregon Department of
Fish and Wildlife worker asked a visitor after shooing a gaggle
of California sea lions weighing up to 800 pounds (365 kg) off
the slick slats. "He was here a few days ago. Somebody shot him
and now he's rotting from the inside."

Officials didn't know who shot the rotting sea lion, but
many fishermen in the U.S. Northwest are unhappy about a surge
in sea lion numbers over the past 25 years. The animals are
eating fish, including endangered Pacific salmon, and depleting

"They're eating us alive," Jim Wells, a commercial
fisherman, said of sea lions and seals. Wells pulled in his net
at the mouth of the Columbia River on a recent day, and a seal,
whose smooth black head poked up like a periscope after he
unraveled the net, had eaten all but the jaw of a salmon,
Wells' only catch.


Hunters in the U.S. Northwest used to slaughter sea lions,
sometimes with machine guns, to sell to glue factories or to
send their dried penises to China as an aphrodisiac.

That changed when Congress passed the 1972 Marine Mammals
Protection Act outlawing the hunting or exporting of California
sea lions and harbor seals. Since then, the number of sea lions
on the U.S. West Coast where they live have climbed nearly 60
percent to about 300,000, according to the National Marine
Fishery Service. Harbor seals are also more numerous.

But commercial and sports fishermen complain about how much
endangered Pacific salmon, some of the world's last wild fish,
the mammals eat.

"They become a huge factor only when so few fish are left
for the fishermen to catch," said Glen Spain, a director of the
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations.

Sports fishermen say sea lions swipe salmon right off their

To be sure, the sea lions take only minuscule amounts of
fish compared to the factors that made salmon endangered in the
first place, such as dam building and habitat destruction. But
many biologists see some risk.

"Sea lions can take a lot of those adults and they can be a
problem at fairly specific points in the migration of adult
fish," said Jim Lichatowich, a fisheries scientist.

Before overfishing began in the late 1800s, the Columbia
River basin supported 16 million salmon. Hydropower dams built
during the Great Depression blocked the salmon's migration. And
growth in agriculture and home building destroyed streams where
salmon spawn. As a result, some 50 populations of Pacific
salmon and related steelhead went extinct, according to the
fisheries service.

Today their population is a fraction of the original number
and survival is in doubt.


The salmon's migration from the ocean to the inland streams
where they breed also makes them vulnerable.

Last spring at the Bonneville Dam, for instance, sea lions
waddled up fish ladders designed to allow adult salmon to
bypass the dam and spawn. One made it to the observation window
where tourists ordinarily watch migrating fish.

"Clearly they take fish," said Jeff Laake, a biologist with
the U.S. fisheries service. "Whether that's a problem is a
societal view."

Wells worries about spring when the sea lions fatten up
before drifting down to California to mate. He said he has seen
up to 15 sea lions on his net at once and that when they tire
of eating whole fish, they eat only the bellies and eggs and
toss the carcasses aside.

Some people risk the Marine Mammal Act's penalties of
$10,000, a year in jail, or both, by taking things into their
own hands. A California fishing boat captain this year was
sentenced to two months in prison for shooting at sea lions.

The Marine Mammal Center near San Francisco treats several
sea lions every year that have gunshot wounds.

Fishermen hope one day Congress will amend the marine
mammal act to allow culling of the predators.

Others are more cautious. Floyd Holcom, an ex-commercial
fisherman, runs a bed and breakfast that overlooks sea lions
basking on a rock pile near the pier in Astoria, Oregon.

Holcom said the mammals bring in business. "They are quite
the attraction to people who have never seen them before," he