Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sea Lion Salad Days May Be Over

Lawmakers debate whether to kill mass of sea lions in Pacific Northwest

"A House Natural Resources Committee panel is holding a hearing this morning about the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act (HR 946), which, under its tame-sounding official name, would authorize tribal members in the Pacific Northwest to kill sea lions to allow the endangered wild salmon to replenish in the Columbia River.

"As Northwest residents spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to protect salmon, California sea lions camp out at Bonneville Dam and other areas along the Columbia River and gorge themselves on endangered fish," Natural Resources Committee chairman Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) explained in a statement last month.

The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration in May authorized "lethal" removal of sea lions on the 140-mile stretch of the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington below the dam.

“This is not an easy decision for our agency to make, but a thorough analysis shows that a small number of California sea lions preying on salmon and steelhead are having a significant effect on the ability of the fish stocks to recover,” William W. Stelle Jr., Northwest regional administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service, said in a statement recommending lethal removal of sea lions in the region.

The Humane Society stands opposed to the the bill, because once sea lions are removed, lethally or by other means, others will come to take their place, Sharon Young, the organization's marine issues director told the Daily Caller.

“If you kill some of them others come, so you don’t actually stop anything,” she said. “You are just killing sea lions and making it look like you’re doing something, where in fact you are not doing anything at all because sea lions come and go all the time and completely obviates any benefit you might get from removing some of them. It simply doesn’t work.”

The legislation has a long history, and methods for salmon repopulation in the Columbia River, have been debated for years. Salmon and steelhead have been a large part of Northwestern and tribal culture for centuries."

The sea lion situation in the NW is a much larger problem than people might suspect. Because of all the anadromous fish populations they park themselves at fresh water chokepoints like dams and tight river stretches , and like grizzlies in Alaska they settle in for a leisurely chow.

When I lived up in Oregon I used to go fishing off the jetty rocks at Newport very often.
This is the south jetty, I preferred the north because of the currents even though it was a tougher scramble, which actually was a bonus because it meant I could fish in splendid isolation.

In the mid 70s I'd stop at a farm supply store and buy a used cloth grain sack for a quarter and drive out to the coast. It took about an hour to jump the rip rap boulders to get out where the water was deeper. I'd use a ten or twelve foot surf casting rod with a huge spinning reel and 30 or 35 pound test line. I made my own lead headed jigs by melting an ounce of the metal onto large number six hooks, then attaching plastic wiggle worms that fluttered oh so provocatively in the currents. These things were six inches long and heavy enough to cast a couple hundred feet out where you'd let them sink to the bottom. There are sharp rocks and giant fish out there and you need oversize everything. I lost a lot of jigs.

For a couple of years I was pretty much assured that every single time I went out I'd have to stop angling because that sack was getting too heavy to carry back in. Most of the fish I caught were black rockfish, or sea bass, weighing 3 to 5 pounds, but on occasion I'd catch ling cod that could get very, very big indeed. One time I caught a steelhead coming in to spawn; another time I reeled in a duck that got caught in the line. You never knew what you'd catch, actually. Several times something extremely large nailed the jig and continued on it's merry way, snapping 35 pound test like it was string. A couple of times I caught a twofer, reeling in a sea bass when a big ling cod rose up and bit on it, and the greedy bastard wouldn't let go if you reeled them in slowly. On a few occasions I went scuba diving inside the jetties and was amazed at the schools of perch and bass and greenling.

The reason I'm mentioning this is that this rich, diverse and productive ecosystem all came to a screeching halt by the late 70s. In 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, a laudable effort to protect whales, dolphins, manatees, otters and pinnipeds. But then came the sea lions.

The first indication things were changing was the disappearing flounder population in the bay. All slow moving flatfish were easy pickings. I started to see lots of the big critters when I was out on the rocks and you basically had to move to some other place when you saw one, because all the fish spooked and fled. In short order they learned that when the charter boats came in it was buffet time as the workers cleaned the fish for customers and tossed the offal off the piers. You weren't allowed to discourage the beasts in any way and pretty soon thousands of them figured these sheltered places with regular snacks were all right places to live all along the coast, and they moved on in and started taking over the docks.


And the fish just disappeared. At the end I wound up getting skunked the last 15 or 20 times I spent a day at the coast. The big schools probably moved offshore to this sea mound called the Rockpile, or gravitated to more ragged stretches of coastline to escape these giant, voracious balls of lard, but in any case my sea fishing days off the rocks were over. At least the beasts became major tourist attractions. But now it seems, up on the Columbia anyway, the sea lions have overstayed their welcome.


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