Oregon City

Controlling the sea lion population: Is it working?

Controlling the sea lion population: Is it working?
Photo courtesy Moosealope on Flickr (Creative Commons).

PORTLAND, Ore. - It's a familiar story - sea lions and fishermen fighting over salmon.

On the one side you have hungry animals snatching what they can from fish runs but on the other side you have humans trying to keep a sport alive, which helps maintain the economic lifeline to local businesses.

Everyone wants a resolution but there are no easy answers.

"Managing these fish runs is very, very complex," Tom Murtagh, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), told us. "There are serious predation problems. It's a huge juggling act."

The complaints pour in from those who are frustrated with what's happening on the Willamette and Columbia rivers. Here are some of the comments we heard from local fishermen:

    "Now it's getting to the point you're seeing 30, 40, 50 sea lions. If something's not done, we'll end up having no fishery here. There will be no salmon in this river." - Todd Call

    "If it increases any more than it is this year, within a few years there probably won't be anyone coming out here to fish." - David Johnson

    "These animals are smart enough to know and tell a friend - easy meal on that boat, go get it." - Pete Tracy

    "It's going to decimate not only the guides, but everybody - suppliers who sell bait, tackle, boats, fuel." - Todd Call

They tell us every stolen salmon means a human depending on it is losing money. And they fear they might be reaching the end of their rope.

Of course, wildlife officials are taking steps to control the sea lion populations, but the million dollar question is - is it working?

Fishermen say its not and they fear the problem is just going to get worse. They aren't optimistic.

Sea lion supporters contend it's a waste of money and manpower. Beyond that, they believe it's cruel to deprive the animals of their sustenance.

"We have got to get to a place where we see the bigger picture," said Ashley Lenton with Sea Shepherd International. "Sea lions don't have a choice - they eat fish. Human beings have choices. That's what makes us different than the animals. We can go to supermarkets. We can drive through the drive through. Sea lions don’t have that choice."

"The sea lions are being scape-goated," Lenton added. "Sea lions are not the problem, the actual problems are not being addressed."

Lenton feels we should all take lessons from the past on this one. "Every time we mess with nature, it bites us back," she said.

Willamette River Hazing

At Willamette Falls, ODFW crews recently spent a few months between the falls and the Interstate 205 bridge using non-lethal methods to try to scare off the sea lions. One method was to make a loud noise above the water and the other was to set off an explosion under water.

"We saw a lot of sea lions and were able to effectively move them away from the falls," ODFW spokesman Rick Swart told us a few weeks ago when the program ended. "But in the last few days, the salmon run has been peaking, so the sea lions were pretty persistent. We would move them from one part of the river next to the falls and then their little heads would pop up across the river."

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hazed sea lions on the Willamette River below Willamette Falls from February through April this year. The hazing (using non-lethal methods) was done by boat and along the walkway pictured here. KATU photo.

It was the final year of a 3-year pilot project, although last year's hazing was suspended due to lack of funding. The big questions now, of course, are what ODFW learned from the program and where they go from this point.

Swart said those are the questions that everybody wants answers to, but they just don't have that information right now. First, they need to sit down and review the program to try to determine its effectiveness.

"What we know is that sea lions are coming back every year and we're able to move them away from the falls," Swart said. "But we don't really know what that does to the overall numbers of fish crossing - how many crossed and how many would have crossed had we not been present with this hazing program."

Columbia River Trapping

ODFW has been trapping California sea lions at Bonneville Dam in an ongoing effort to keep the animals from eating threatened salmon and steelhead. Here's a look at the recent activity:

  • April 16 - one California sea lion was trapped and euthanized because it had pre-cancerous lesions and could not be transferred to a zoo.
  • April 23 - two California sea lions were trapped and released after being branded and having a GPS attached to them.
  • April 30 - Nine California sea lions trapped. ODFW branded and released six of them. The other three are getting health checks to see if they can be transferred to the Queens Zoo in New York. The zoo can take up to two.
  • May 3 - Of the three California sea lions on the removal list that were trapped on April 30, two were being transferred to the Queen’s Zoo in New York and one was euthanized.
  • May 7 - Nine California sea lions trapped - none were on the list for removal. Three were branded and released. Six were already branded and were released.
  • May 8 - Two California sea lions, not on the list for removal, were trapped and released.
  • For more information on the trapping program

The Aggressive Factor

Aside from all the controversy surrounding sea lions and salmon, there is also the concern that these animals might pose a danger to humans.

 "I've talked to half a dozen people wanting to go down to the dock that the city's built and they're asking whether it's safe to take small children down there," said West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus. "I can't answer that. It's a big problem."

"We try to detour people from coming down here," Eric Dye, owner of Sportcraft Marina in Oregon City, said. "I have been down on the docks and confronting the sea lions and they have actually chased at me."

"In regards to being territorial, I think they are becoming that way, at least in regards to our marina," Dye said. "The aggressiveness - they're barking at you. We don't sleep at night. We have 12 sea lions that bark at night."

The Cormorant Problem

ODFW has also been hazing cormorants at estuaries along the Oregon coast, specifically at the mouths of the Columbia, Nehalem, Nestucca and Coquille Rivers.

Why focus on these birds? Cormorants are a threat to salmon and steelhead - they can eat up to two pounds of fish a day.

So ODFW has enlisted the help of volunteers to try to keep them away.

"We are working with various organizations and groups who can provide the manpower in those estuaries," Swart said. "They go out in a boat with a shotgun and if they see a cormorant they either speed up the boat or fire a cracker shell. The purpose is to just interrupt the feeding while the fish are moving through."

Cormorants are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so the volunteers doing the hazing have to be careful. None of the birds can be injured or killed.

In a separate project, ODFW was granted a research permit that allows them to shoot 50 cormorants each on the Rogue, Umpqua and Tillamook estuaries. The purpose behind killing the birds is so biologists can check their stomach contents to see what they're eating.

"The stomachs will be dissected in the field and the contents sent to a lab at OSU for further studies," Swart said.

Some of those studies will include genetic tests to find out if the birds are eating hatchery salmon, wild salmon or steelhead.

KATU Reporter Lincoln Graves and KATU Special Projects Producer Kelly Hatmaker contributed to this report.