Thursday, January 24, 2008


A bit of background is in order here for those who don't live in the Pacific Northwest. For the past few years, an increasing number of California sea lions have been making their way more than 100 miles up the Columbia River to the area below Bonneville Dam during the salmon spawning migration season. There the sea lions feast on adult salmon and some white sturgeon. Federal, state and Tribal fish managers are concerned that the predation by these large marine mammals on fish runs listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will further decimate these threatened and endangered species. Commercial, recreational and tribal fishers are very upset because sea lions often steal fish from their gear. Biologists estimate that the sea lions might be eating about 4 percent of the runs of ESA-listed species. After several years of mostly ineffective hazing with noise and small explosives, the agencies are close to getting a ruling that they can selectively kill the worst of these offenders (the ruling is required because the sea lions are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.)

I was recently kayaking in the Columbia River and saw an old friend of mine, a sea lion named Sammy who visits every year when the salmon are migrating. We caught up on old times, and I let him use my pocket p.c. to catch up on the news on the internet (and, of course, to read my blog). He was very upset to learn that the federal agencies are close to a ruling that will allow them to kill sea lions. Sammy asked me if he could dictate a message to me that I would post on the blog. His message follows:

My name is Sammy C. Lyon. I live in the Pacific Ocean, and often visit the Columbia River for the annual salmon feast. I noticed that my picture was in the Oregonian the other day, kind of like a mug shot in the Post Office. According to the article, there will likely be a death warrant signed soon for me and some of my relatives.

I'm finding it difficult to comprehend this turn of events. Yes, I eat salmon, and an occasional sturgeon, while I'm enjoying the seasonal foods of the Columbia River. My ancestors have been eating these foods for many generations, and we've always followed the salmon upstream in the Columbia, historically up to Celilo Falls where we and the native people of the river shared the bounty of nature before your dams drowned the falls. But now it seems that we're taking the blame for something we really haven't caused.

I have a great sense of humor, and I chuckled when I read a published statement by the Regional Director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife that my eating salmon at Bonneville Dam “is a very unnatural situation that requires active intervention to restore nature's balance.” What? Restore nature's balance by killing sea lions at the base of a dam? Um, excuse me, but my relatives and I didn't build Bonneville Dam, we don't dump billions of gallons of sewage into the river, we're swimming in a soup of toxic and radioactive wastes, pharmaceutical drugs, excess nutrients and other impacts of the wonderful “balance of nature” you humans have created. And we're not responsible for global warming. I don't see your government issuing death warrants for people who destroy habitat, dump toxic wastes, over harvest fish, and take so much water out of streams that salmon can no longer live there.

Wild salmon aren't imperiled because my sea lion brethren and I eat them. And we don't “steal” fish from humans fishing in the river – the wild fish don't really belong to you. You humans have always had a tendency to blame someone else for the problems you create. Killing sea lions might save some fish, but it doesn’t solve the larger problem. As reported by the Oregonian, the huge salmon recovery industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars per year with few improvements in salmon populations.

I'm going to continue living my life, eating the foods I eat, and hope that I can avoid getting killed by the appointed executioners of your government. I only hope that there are enough people who choose to have salmon and sea lions by taking responsibility for salmon declines and making real changes in how humans affect the natural systems that sustain all of us.

Thanks Sammy - well said!


  1. One reader, in an e-mail, asked what I think the solution is to the sea lion - salmon issue. I don't know, other than to say that the basic causes of salmon decline in the Pacific Northwest had nothing to do with sea lions, and everything to do with human activities. A colleague of mine attended a meeting this week of the Lower Columbia Salmon Recovery Team, a large group of agency and other biologists who are developing recovery plans for the various at-risk salmon species. He reported, with great disappointment, that the recovery team is purposefully NOT considering the effects of continued human population growth in the region or the effects of global climate change - because they don't know how to address these issues. When it comes to the potential to recover these species, need I say more?

  2. Proud of you Mr Paul. What has been causing the sea lions to "migrate"?

  3. Sea lions and harbor seals have always come into the Columbia River where they follow salmon and smelt runs upstream. Sea lions were hunted to very low population levels in the late 19th - early 20th century, but have rebounded in numbers since enactment of the federal Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972.

    I haven't seen any estimates of how many sea lions came upriver historically, but the situation is different now with Bonneville Dam creating a point where salmon have to congregate to get into the fish ladder and over the dam. Sea lions have discovered this free meal situation - they are smart animals.

    The parallel would be if McDonalds started putting happy meals on a table outside one of their stores with a sign saying "Free Lunch" and then started shooting people who came by to eat.

    Don't get me wrong - this is a serious situation for salmon runs - or can become serious. My point is that the plight of salmon in the Columbia River is much more complex than sea lions eating fish.

  4. Thanks for getting this right, Paul and Sammy.

    Sea lions have always been on the Columbia, and are not harmful to the salmon. As a large predator, they are part of the balance of nature. It is dams, and over-fishing by humans that are causing the decline of the salmon populations. Killing sea lions is no answer, and will do nothing to help the salmon. It could even cause more harm for the salmon, since sea lions also prey on lampreys and pike minnow, thus keeping them in balance. (Both species otherwise prey on salmon, and/or outcompete with them over food.)

    Just one more note: The California sea lions being targeted with this plan are not the ones that are eating the white sturgeon. You are right to point out that sea lions and seals have always come up into the river, eating these fish. But just to stop a rumor being propagated by fishermen, the proposal to kill sea lions will have no impact at all on sturgeon predation, because it is Steller's sea lions that are eating the sturgeon, not California sea lions. Since Steller's are endangered, they are not subject to the plan.

    So fishermen who would support the plan to kill sea lions to save salmon OR sturgeon are clearly misguided, because these sea lions are not causing the problems with the fish. It's us.