For sea lions, a feast of salmon on the Columbia

Fishermen, tribes and environmentalists flummoxed as predator numbers swell below Washington's Bonneville Dam.


A California sea lion chomps a salmonid.

Rolling whitecaps thumped against the aluminum hull of the CRITFC3 as Bobby Begay piloted the boat up the Columbia River on a breezy spring morning. Herons and cormorants skated against the blue sky. On the vessel’s dashboard sat yellow binoculars, a bag of snickerdoodle cookies, and a carton of orange waterproof explosives, each the length of an index finger. These were the seal bombs.

Begay, a boulder-sized fisheries technician at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), swung the boat hard to port. The glinting black head of a sea lion bobbed near the river’s Washington bank. Russell Jackson, a technician whose ponytail poked out from under a Seahawks cap, leapt to the bow. In one smooth motion, he hoisted a Remington 870 .780 Marine Magnum 12-gauge shotgun and fired a couple cacophonous rounds. Another crewman flipped a seal bomb over the starboard gunwale; seconds later, the detonation resounded against the hull. The head vanished.   

Though the sea lion surely disliked the rude treatment, it wasn’t harmed. Jackson’s shotgun was loaded not with bullets but with cracker shells  explosive projectiles designed to scare away critters. Seal bombs, despite the militaristic name, are also designed merely to annoy. For years, CRITFC, the fish and wildlife agency that represents four Columbia River tribes, has been hazing sea lions away from Bonneville Dam, the first hydroelectric dam on the journey upriver. The reason: to prevent the pinnipeds from devouring the sturgeon, lamprey and especially endangered salmon surging upriver to spawn     

Seal bombs, like this, and other hazing techniques may temporarily push sea lions downriver, but they don't seem to have long-term benefits.
Ben Goldfarb

This spring, that task was harder than ever before. Driven by environmental changes a thousand miles away, unprecedented numbers of sea lions flooded into the Columbia. The influx reignited a smoldering debate: What happens when a federally protected marine mammal clashes with an endangered fish? To their detractors, sea lions are ravenous pests; to their advocates, they’re scapegoats for the myriad other problems afflicting salmon. But almost everyone agrees that they’re symptoms of a degraded river, in which natural conditions have been replaced by human meddling. 

The seal bombs discharged, Begay idled the boat and stared downriver, waiting to see if the sea lion had fled. “We’re seeing a lot of new animals this year,” Begay said. “It’s like everyone brought a friend.”

CRTIFC technician Russell Jackson prepares to fire a cracker shell at a California sea lion.
Ben Goldfarb

For proof that conservation works, look no further than Zalophus californianus, the California sea lion. (Don’t let the “California” fool you: The species ranges from Mexico to Alaska.) Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, sea lions were slaughtered for their hides, oil-rich blubber and even their genitals, which Chinese pharmacists turned into a tincture intended “to rejuvenate the aged.” By 1927, fewer than 1,000 remained.

The population hung on for a few decades after plummeting fur prices put hunters out of business, but it didn’t truly explode until 1972, when Congress prohibited killing, injuring or harassing the creatures via the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These days, more than 300,000 California sea lions roam U.S. waters. “This population is probably at a higher abundance level now than at any time in the last 10 to 12,000 years,” says Bob DeLong, a marine mammal biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.As sea lions rebounded, they began colonizing the lower Columbia River, where, as far as archaeologists can tell, they were relative strangers. In 2001, six sea lions turned up in the tailwaters of the Bonneville Dam, 145 river miles inland, where endangered salmon and steelhead congregate before ascending fish ladders. Two years later, 31 sea lions feasted there; the year after that, around 100 showed up. Steller sea lions, their bigger, tawnier cousins, also started traveling upriver.

It’s hard to say exactly how many salmon the sea lions consume. Biologists have suggested the animals eat about one in 25 returning spring chinook salmon at the base of the dam. But predation throughout the entire river may be far higher. In 2010, NOAA fisheries biologist Michelle Wargo-Rub began inserting trackable microchips into chinook at the Columbia’s mouth to see how many actually made it over Bonneville Dam. In 2011 and ’12, more than 80 percent of the fish reached the dam; but in 2014, only 55 percent got that far. Nearly half the run, in other words, disappeared somewhere in the lower Columbia.

The evidence implicating Z. californianus is circumstantial, but it’s compelling: Fish that Wargo-Rub tagged in March, when sea lions are abundant, most often vanished. After sea lions decamped in May for their California mating grounds, salmon survival shot up.

To be sure, sea lions are far from the greatest threat to salmon: Dams, fishermen, habitat loss and invasive fish species like bass and walleye all take a huge toll. Nonetheless, the pinnipeds are undoubtedly a problem. “The estimate (of only 55 percent survival) might not be spot-on, but we’re focusing on the trend,” says Wargo-Rub. “And the trend is that we’re seeing lower survival these past few years at the same time that we’re seeing more predators.”

This spring, the sea lion influx grew even larger — and you can blame The Blob. Last fall, NOAA’s DeLong realized that pups in California’s Channel Islands, where sea lions have rookeries, were growing only half as fast as usual. Females had a hard time finding enough food to nurse their offspring; thousands of pups either starved or headed to sea before they were strong enough to survive. Scientists fingered two culprits: the collapse of the sardine fishery; and the mysterious appearance of a vast patch of North Pacific warm water, nicknamed The Blob, which drove off other prey. Emaciated pups washed ashore on California’s beaches, flooding rehabilitation centers. As of May 20, over 3,000 young sea lions had stranded — 15 times more than in a normal year. 

Lounging California sea lions cover the boat docks in Astoria's East Mooring Basin, Oregon.

Though mothers and pups had a brutal winter, male sea lions, which have no offspring to nurse, were able to wander, flipper-loose and fancy-free, far from rookeries. Though some males swim up to Oregon every year, the lack of prey in California drove record numbers to make the trip — and a smelt boom in the Columbia River kept them fat and happy through February. Then they stuck around for the arrival of spring chinook salmon. “These guys know where the prey patches are, and they just travel from food source to food source all winter long,” DeLong explains.

This spring, biologists counted 2,400 male sea lions along the waterfront in Astoria, Oregon, near the river’s mouth — 1,000 more than last year’s record. When I visited Astoria, blubbery creatures were draped, slug-like, over the docks, basking in the cold sun. A few bore pink serial numbers seared into their fur, so biologists could track their movements.

Today, all but a handful have returned to California to breed. But in a few short months, they’ll be back again — and we humans will face some tough decisions about how to handle them. 

It’s a rancorous debate. Salmon recovery in the Columbia River is big business — the federal government spends over $500 million annually on behalf of the fish — and some fisheries managers are incensed that the fruits of their labor are being gobbled up. Fishermen, meanwhile, complain that sea lions steal their catch. "We figure, on a whole, that about 75 percent of our fish are being taken out of our nets when we're trying to make a living," commercial fisherman Mark Burns told The Oregonian in June.

Back in 2008, Oregon and Washington received permission from NOAA to trap and euthanize sea lions that continued eating fish at the dam. These days, the states are authorized to “remove” up to 92 repeat offenders annually. Since 2008, the states have euthanized 85 California sea lions (including 30 in 2015) and sent another 15 off to captivity. Seven more California sea lions, and one Steller sea lion, died accidentally in traps. (Stellers, which are endangered, aren’t targeted for killing.)

According to Robin Brown, marine mammal program leader at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the program has proved its worth. “Every year after we started removal in 2008, the average number of California sea lions feeding at the dam went down,” he says. “We were making headway” — until this year.

Headway or no, the killing infuriates advocacy groups like the Sea Lion Defense Brigade, which watchdogs the government’s pinniped activities on Facebook. To the mammal’s defenders, lethal removal is a distraction — and an ineffective one at that — from everything else that harms endangered fish.

“It’s not that we don’t care about salmon — it’s because we care about salmon that we don’t want this program to continue,” says Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s an old solution: Something’s in my way, so I have to kill it. It’s like the squirrel and the birdfeeder: You may kill the squirrel that’s on the birdfeeder today, but you’re crazy if you think some other squirrel’s not going to replace it. You’re just setting up a treadmill of death.”

But Brown says the states’ permits, which require that individual sea lions appear at the dam at least five times before they can be taken out, make it too hard to remove sea lions. “Once these animals travel 145 miles from the ocean, they’re really only there to do one thing, and that’s to eat fish,” he says. “If the whole goal is to reduce the number of threatened or endangered fish they take, they should be removed immediately.”

To their detractors, sea lions are ravenous pests; to their advocates, they’re scapegoats. But almost everyone agrees that they’re symptoms of a degraded river, in which natural conditions have been replaced by human meddling.  

The Columbia River tribes, whose fishing rights give them a vested interest in salmon recovery, have pursued a middle ground: hazing the animals without killing them. In 2008, CRITFC received federal funding through the Columbia Basin Fish Accords to begin harassing sea lions near the dam. Since then, Begay and his crew have spent each spring firing cracker shells and dropping seal bombs.

After my ride with Begay, I joined Doug Hatch, the fisheries biologist who heads CRITFC’s sea lion program, at an overlook above the Bonneville Dam. Two dozen dog-like heads nodded in the white churn of the dam’s tailrace, their sleek bodies porpoising as they hunted. Every minute, a sea lion surfaced with a salmon clenched in its jaws, shaking its head violently to break the fish into more manageable chunks — nature, red in tooth, claw, scale and fin.

I asked Hatch, a 25-year CRITFC veteran, how well hazing works. He laughed. “Short answer: It doesn’t,” he said. “We’re moving them downstream, but once we quit hazing they’re coming right back. It’s one of those things where we’re doing it out of frustration because there’s not much else we can do. It’s not the long-term solution.”

Ultimately, the tribes want more authority to kill problem sea lions. In January, congressmen from Washington and Oregon introduced a bill that would grant CRITFC the power to remove the creatures themselves. “The tribes have put tremendous effort into salmon recovery, and we hate to see all those fish lost before they’re able to contribute to the next generation,” Hatch said above the roar of the dam. “We certainly don’t advocate killing all the sea lions, but we need more management options.”

In the quest for a solution, we can safely eliminate at least one idea. Soon after I visited Begay and Hatch, Astoria officials deployed a motorized artificial orca, dubbed “Fauxby Dick” by the Twitterati, to scare the sea lions off the docks. The fake whale went belly-up. The sea lions didn’t move. 

The conflict, like many animal issues, seems mired in ontologically divergent views about what wildlife actually is. To many biologists, it’s a resource, akin to timber or fish; and the goal is sustainable management on a grand scale. “We believe in renewable natural resources,” Hatch told me. “The population of California sea lions is at a very high level, and that population can certainly sustain removal without any biological effects.”

A male Steller sea lion — a larger, endangered cousin to the California sea lion — basks on Phoca Rock in the Columbia River.
Ben Goldfarb

To groups like the Sea Lion Defense Brigade, however, sea lions are the epitome of charismatic fauna, capable of breathtaking underwater elegance and possessed of giant liquid eyes that — anthropomorphism alert — project intelligence. Sometimes they cuddle. Sometimes they dance. To sea lion lovers, treating Rupert, Rocky and Simon like fungible objects is akin to blasphemy.  

Columbia River debates tend to return, like spawning salmon, to the dams, and this crisis is no different. By concentrating and disorienting salmon, Bonneville Dam has created prime conditions for a canned hunt. The sea lions are simply behaving like human fishermen at a stocked trout pond. Of course, any species that becomes so bold as to actually flourish in our novel ecosystems will face our wrath: Ravens that nest on power towers get poisoned and shot; coyotes that prey on livestock are terminated with extreme prejudice. Indeed, on the Columbia, a handful of sea lions have already been assassinated by anonymous killers. The mammals are victims of their own success.

This spring’s sea lion explosion serves as a reminder, too, that the West’s coastal ecosystems from Baja to British Columbia are connected — and that our understanding of those connections remains murky. Scientists still aren’t sure why The Blob bloomed and the sardines crashed. Perhaps climate change and overfishing played a role — but many marine processes remain opaque to us, and both ocean temperatures and forage fish populations are notoriously cyclical. While it’s tempting to ascribe every environmental change to human agency, the ocean has its own inscrutable logic.

Back on the boat with Bobby Begay, we came across one final sea lion as it mauled a salmon; it flung the ragged fish back and forth, an oily sheen spreading across the river’s surface. A piebald juvenile bald eagle wheeled low over the water, looking for scraps. Russell Jackson reached for his shotgun, but Begay told him to hold his fire. A couple years back, he said, some Sea World trainers had advised Begay not to haze sea lions while they ate.

“Let ’em eat this fish, and maybe they won’t be hungry for the next one,” Begay explained. He spun the boat upriver and the sea lion ducked beneath the rolling blue Columbia, its belly full, for now. 

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