Hungry sea lions put salmon-savers in a bind

  The California sea lions that snarfed up 3,000 chinook salmon at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River have finally headed south to mate. But their big appetites this spring have some fishermen calling for the quick removal and even killing of the protected mammals.

"Our fishermen are very concerned. It’s their livelihood and they are going to take a more extreme view against the sea lions," says Olney Patt Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Council, which represents the Nez Perce, Yakima and several other tribes.

Biologists estimate that about 100 sea lions noshed through nearly 4 percent of this year’s already small salmon run. Patt says their rapacity would have gone "unnoticed" in a normal year. But this year, he says, the salmon runs were so low that they didn’t even fulfill the tribes’ ceremonial and subsistence takes (HCN, 6/13/05: For salmon, a crucial moment of decision). Only 82,000 fish returned, compared to more than 180,000 in 2004. In April, the Inter-Tribal Fish Council sent letters to Oregon and Washington state wildlife managers, requesting that they seek federal permission to remove and even kill problem sea lions. Sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Federal and state wildlife managers have been hazing the animals, using firecrackers, underwater sound systems, rubber-tipped arrows and rubber bullets. They also recently built a $100,000 underwater fence that blocks access to one of the fish ladders.

Plans are under way to build a new sound system and install fences on each of the dam’s fish ladders before the sea lions return to the "little fish buffet" next spring, says Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Diana Fredlund.

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