Salmon-Eating Sea Lions Targeted For Good Taste

Originally published on July 16, 2011 1:32 pm

Each summer thousands of salmon can be seen shooting upstream at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon and into Washington state. Sea lions congregate there. They think of the salmon migration as a buffet.

Sea lions are protected species, but salmon are endangered. Wildlife regulators don't want sea lions to gorge themselves on endangered salmon. For a time, the National Marine Fisheries Service was authorized to shoot any sea lion with a salmon dangling from its mouth. A bill has recently been introduced in Congress to allow the killing to start again.

The sea lions' salmon-eating habit was first noticed in the early part of the last decade, Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Rob Manning tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon. Manning, who has been following the story, says active removal of sea lions began in 2007 to protect the salmon.

"It was challenged in court by the Humane Society of the United States, and they ultimately won. So right now it's not entirely on sound legal footing for the federal government and the states of Oregon and Washington to continue removing and killing sea lions," Manning says.

They have tried methods besides killing, without always getting the desired results.

"They tried hazing, often using loud noises, sometimes things like fireworks, to scare them away from where the salmon are," he says. "But particularly with the hazing, there are sea lions who have come every year who know what the hazing is about, and they aren't scared by it anymore. So ... that isn't entirely successful either."

Commercial fisherman and others involved in the industry have also taken interest in the situation. Manning says fishing practices have been central to court arguments.

"The argument being, 'Well, there are fishermen out there catching a lot of salmon. Why should we let them do it and turn around and kill sea lions for consuming salmon?' " Manning says.

Considering the commercial or sport fishing industry and money from the federal and state governments used to protect salmon, he says, "there are millions, even billions, of dollars at stake."

"In the middle of all this are sea lions," Manning says," who are very publicly and obviously eating salmon, so it makes it a situation where certainly politicians want to take some action."

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Rob, thanks for being with us.

ROB MANNING: You're welcome.

SIMON: And fill us in on the history of the dispute if you can. It goes back a few years.

MANNING: Yes. Sea lions were first noticed coming up the Columbia River to eat salmon the early part of last decade. And it was in 2007 that they actually started doing active removal of the sea lions to protect the salmon population. It was challenged in court by the Humane Society of the United States. And they ultimately won. So right now it's not entirely on sound legal footing for the federal government and the states of Oregon and Washington to continue removing and killing sea lions.

SIMON: Have they methods other than killing the sea lions been tried?

MANNING: Yes. They've tried hazing, often using loud noises, sometimes things like fireworks, to scare them away from where the salmon are. But particularly with the hazing, there are sea lions who have come every year who know what the hazing is about, and they aren't scared by it anymore. So, you know, that isn't entirely successful either.

SIMON: Commercial fisherman and other people involved in the industry must have some interest in this.

MANNING: But there are millions, even billions, of dollars at stake, whether you're talking about the commercial or the sport fishing industry or all the money that the federal and state governments have poured into salmon recovery. In the middle of all this are sea lions, who are very publicly and obviously eating salmon, so it makes it a situation where certainly politicians want to take some action.

SIMON: Rob Manning, a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks so much.

MANNING: You're welcome.

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SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.