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As sea lion populations grow, conflicts increase

Some see the animals as a nuisance and say they damage salmon populations. Others argue salmon face greater challenges from human actions.

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By Bill Sheets
Herald Writer

Sea lions rest on a buoy just off Bravo Pier at Naval Station Everett.


nyone walking along the Everett waterfront near the Navy base at dusk can hear it. The barking of a hundred sea lions creates a cacophony both quaint and comical and, when set against a backdrop of silver-gray saltwater and the scent of cool, briny air, an experience unmistakably Northwest. Some people, however, might see this setting from a different point of view.

See more photos of sea lions in our photo gallery. And, you can see a series of photos a sea lion losing some of its lunch in this photo gallery.
After nearly being hunted out of existence, California sea lions have boomed in population in the 40 years since the 1972 passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. According to several estimates, their number has grown from 5,000 around 1970 to about 300,000 today. That growth, however, has coincided at least in part with the decline of a Northwest figure far more iconic and economically significant than sea lions: the salmon. The effect of sea lions on the overall survival of salmon is highly debatable, experts say. Still, the voracious fish-eaters' effect on individual fish runs has some interested parties calling for the protection law to at least be revisited or revised. "Let's have a gathering," said Ray Fryberg, director of fish and wildlife for the Tulalip Tribes, who says sea lions and seals -- which also have undergone a booming revival -- have had a significant effect on tribal fisheries. The most extreme remedy for keeping sea lions away from salmon, the lethal kind, was sanctioned recently by the federal government for a short period on the Columbia River. Permission to kill sea lions was later rescinded, but is being considered again. California sea lions were hunted to near extinction in the first half of the 20th century, killed for their fur, for fertilizer and pet food, and to keep them from eating fish. "Before they were protected you could kill sea lions on sight," said Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Two sea lions rest together on a pontoon.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act applied to cetaceans, such as certain whales and dolphins, and to pinnipeds, such as sea lions, seals, elephant seals and walruses. In most cases, the protections are separate and independent of those provided under the Endangered Species Act, approved in 1973, a year after the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The population of California sea lions has rebounded from a low of 1,000 in the 1930s to 300,000 today, said Bob DeLong, a program leader for the National Marine Mammal Laboratory at NOAA in Seattle. "From what I understand it's still increasing," said Pat Gearin, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. Their range covers nearly the entire West Coast of North America, from Mexico to Alaska. Hundreds of California sea lions may be found in the waters of Snohomish County. Many call the floating fence that surrounds the piers at Naval Station Everett home. Harbor seals, too, have enjoyed a stunning recovery, growing from 2,000 to 3,000 animals in Oregon and Washington in the 1970s to 30,000 to 40,000, Gearin said. Several populations of chinook salmon, on the West Coast, meanwhile, have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Puget Sound chinook has been listed since 1999 as threatened. While there's no doubt that sea lions can affect certain salmon runs, the species is a small percentage of their diet and many other factors, such as pollution, habitat degradation and overfishing by humans, have contributed to the decline of chinook and coho salmon. "I don't think there's any real clear answer in terms of estimating (sea lions') total impact right now," Gearin said. "It's still relatively unknown." The Columbia River is the current frontier of the battle over sea lions. In 2008 alone, Army Corps of Engineers observers reported that 103 sea lions ate 4,243 salmon and steelhead near the Bonneville Dam, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. That year, the National Marine Fisheries service gave Washington, Oregon and Idaho permission to kill a limited number of sea lions near the Bonneville Dam. Non-lethal methods, such as harassing the animals with boats and use of underwater "seal bombs," or large firecrackers, didn't help, DeLong said. From 2008 to 2010, 37 sea lions were killed, he said. Then, last summer, the National Marine Fisheries Service quit allowing the states to shoot the animals because of concerns over possible litigation. Now, a 16-member advisory group is reviewing the law and could again grant permission for sea lions to be shot. The Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force expects to have its report done by the end of the month. Also, a bill currently under consideration in Congress would allow up to 92 sea lions per year to be shot and killed in the Columbia River. The bill is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco. Currently, about 4,000 to 5,000 sea lions migrate north as far as Alaska from their breeding grounds on islands in California and Mexico, Jeffries said. Many of them stop in the inland waterways in between, following the food.

A sea lion rests on a pontoon at Naval Station Everett.
In Puget Sound and other Western Washington waters, their number has reached as high as 2,000 seasonally in the recent past, Jeffries said. This winter, it's about 200 to 400. The number of sea lions here tends to fluctuate along with runs of hake, or Pacific whiting, Gearin said. It's the sea lions' staple fish. "The Pacific whiting is kind of like the hamburger for sea lions in that area," Gearin said. "Salmon is more like the prime rib." The sea lions leave the southern waters about August or September and stay until May, though some are here longer, Gearin said. Snohomish County waterways, particularly Port Gardner in Everett and Port Susan north of Tulalip, have provided a winter home for many of those sea lions in recent decades, wildlife biologists say. Ten to 15 years ago, there were more sea lions in Port Susan than anywhere else in Western Washington, Gearin said. Near Naval Station Everett, the sea lions "haul out" -- the term for pinnipeds spending time out of the water -- on the large pontoons that support the fence, and on buoys. Humans hang out, sea lions haul out. The California sea lions in these waters are all males -- the females stay in the southern breeding grounds and rarely migrate north. So the barking, trumpeting, snorting and grunting of the sea lions near the Navy base is the sound of one big sea lion dude party. Anyone who hears a sea lion bark is hearing a California sea lion and not a seal or Steller sea lion, also found in local waterways, biologists say. Seals don't bark and Steller sea lions emit a growl that's more like a lion, Gearin said.

Three Steller sea lions and one California sea lion rest together on Tatoosh Island near Cape Flattery. The Steller sea lions are lighter in color and up to 2 1/2 times larger than California sea lions. Photo courtesy NOAA
Steller sea lions are native to the coastal areas of the north Pacific Rim, from Northern California to Siberia. They are more than twice as large as California sea lions, with the largest males reaching up to 2,500 pounds, compared to 1,000 for the California sea lions. They tend to live on the coast and are not seen as much in inland waters, biologists said. Their populations were not as decimated as the California sea lions early in the 20th century, but subsequently, inexplicably, declined in the 1970s and '80s. The population in U.S. and Canadian waters have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, though their numbers have been slowly growing in recent years. The population from Alaska to Siberia is listed as endangered. Sea lions of both types eat up to 6 percent of their body weight in fish per day. It's usually closer to 2 percent to 4 percent, DeLong said, so an 800-pound California sea lion would normally eat 18 to 32 pounds a day. Fish other than salmon make up 80 percent to 95 percent of California sea lions' diet, Gearin said. Though hake is their hamburger, it doesn't mean they won't grab some prime rib if it happens along. Ask Fryberg. He estimates that the pinnipeds steal up to half of the fish that Tulalip tribal members catch in nets and on hooks. The sea lions "are so powerful they can come up and rip fish right out of the net," he said. "They make big holes in the net." The whiskers of seals and sea lions are sensitive and can detect movement. "When a fish starts struggling in the water, whether it's on a net or on a hook, they know," Fryberg said. Seals and sea lions also will use the net like a wall and chase fish up against it, he said. They raid crab pots -- for the bait, not the crab -- and seals will swim as far as 50 miles upriver in search of steelhead.

The back flippers of a sea lion appear briefly before it dives underwater.
In hatchery pens, "seals get up, crawl around the weirs, get up into a foot of water and start eating females," Fryberg said. Gary Krein is the owner of All Star Charters, which takes people out fishing and sightseeing in boats from Everett and Seattle. Sea lions, he said, are a help and a hindrance at the same time. "They're an interesting thing for tourists to see from out of the area. They do provide a level of excitement for the tourist industry," Krein said. Also, though, "they want to sometimes attack the fish that we have hooked on the line and that can be a bit frustrating to fishermen to lose their catch." He said seals are a far greater problem for hooked fish than sea lions. "Harbor seals are way more aggressive," he said. "Sea lions seem to move on through -- they may take a fish from you but they're gone in the next five minutes. The harbor seals will get in and follow and follow and follow." Seals, though, have a much more diverse diet. While California sea lions eat about 10 to 12 different types of prey, seals have up to 40, said Gearin of NOAA. In defending pinnipeds, animal rights groups point to the other factors affecting salmon. The percentage of fish taken by sea lions in the Columbia River run is miniscule compared to that taken by fishing operations, said Kate Wall, a federal affairs coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. The group opposes any plan to allow the animals to be killed. "We think this is an incorrect response that is not answering the real issues that are affecting salmon," she said. "We support protecting all animals, not just sea lions, not just salmon." Sea lions have only one predator in the wild: the orca. Only certain populations of orcas, however, eat sea lions, and those tend to be transient populations that come and go, Gearin said. Non-lethal measures have been tried all over the sea lions' range, DeLong said. In the late 1980s, sea lions had such a field day with fish at the Ballard locks in Seattle that one of them was given a name -- "Herschel" -- and featured regularly on the evening news. Many of these sea lions were trapped and trucked to the Oregon and California coasts. Most of them were back within a month, Gearin said. "The joke was that they beat the truck back," he said. The increasing prevalence of seals and sea lions is causing other problems, too, Gearin said. Their droppings, for example, have caused elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria in Hood Canal clam beds.

Two sea lions fight for position on a pontoon.
"Now what we're starting to see is increasing resource conflicts," Gearin said. "The Marine Mammal Protection Act was certainly a needed piece of legislation but like any piece of legislation it's not perfect. None of us want to kill animals but sometimes you might have to make that choice." Krein, the fishing charter owner, agrees that something needs to be done. "I believe controls on seals and sea lions are an item that needs to be discussed," he said. Fryberg spoke about sea lions last month in Portland at the annual conference of the Pacific Salmon Commission, an advisory panel appointed by the U.S. and Canadian governments. "Let's look at the problem and see if there are solutions that are healthy for all the environment," he said. Sharon Young, marine issues field director the Humane Society in Washington, D.C., is a member of the task force studying the Columbia River situation. She said killing sea lions is a temporary, stopgap solution. "It's like squirrels on your bird feeder -- people get really aggravated," she said. "If you kill that squirrel another will come along. It becomes a treadmill of death. You have to look at population-level solutions, not the 'let's get them off my bird feeder' approach. "These are extremely smart, very adaptable animals, not unlike ourselves," she said. "If you really care about the fish, do something that matters." More about pinnipeds Following are some features of the three pinnipeds common to Western Washington. Two of them — California sea lions and harbor seals — are frequently seen around inland waterways such as Possession Sound, Port Gardner, Port Susan and Puget Sound. Steller sea lions, the largest of the three, occasionally venture into local waterways but are more commonly seen on the Washington coast. California sea lion Zalophus californianus • Length: 7 feet average for males, 6 feet for females; males can reach up to 8 feet long. • Weight: 700 pounds average for males, with some reaching more than 1,000; average for females about 240. • Color: Dark brown for males, light brown for females. • Lifespan: 20 to 30 years. • Population: About 300,000. • Range: Males, West Coast of North America, Mexico to Alaska; females, Mexico and California. • Diet: Pacific whiting, or hake; squid, herring, mackerel, rockfish, sardines and salmon. Steller sea lion Eumetopias jubatus • Length: 10 to 11 feet for males; 7 to 9 for females. • Weight: Up to 2,500 pounds for males, up to 770 for females. • Color: Light blonde to reddish brown and slightly darker on the chest and abdomen. • Lifespan: 20 to 30 years. • Population: 83,500-93,000. • Range: Northern coast of North America to northern coast of Siberia, from Northern California to far northern Japan. • Diet: Hake, skate, herring, pollock, salmon, cod, rockfish, squid, shrimp. Harbor seal Phoca vitulina • Length: 6 feet. • Weight: about 245 pounds; slightly larger in the Pacific than in the Atlantic. • Color: Dark blue-gray backs with light and dark speckling. • Lifespan: Unknown. • Population: 30,000 to 40,000 in Oregon and Washington. • Range: West Coast of North America from Baja California to the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea; East Coast from Canadian Arctic to the Carolinas. Also found in northern Europe and Siberia. • Diet: Fish, squid, shrimp, crab. Source: NOAA fisheries Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439;
Story tags » Environmental PoliticsNatureSalmonPuget SoundPort SusanTulalip Bay

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