Large Sea Lion Population Threatens Fishing

Sea lions are approaching historic peak population numbers and fishermen are beginning to complain. They are frustrated because they say control measures to keep the creatures out of fishing beds are limited and ineffective. Tom Banse reports.

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And here on the West Coast, the sea lion population has quadrupled since hunting stopped some thirty years ago. But fishermen are lobbying for a return of those days.

Tom Banse explains.

(Soundbite of barking sea lions)

TOM BANSE reporting:

A clump of California sea lions is soaking up the fleeting sun on a floating dock in the Port of Gold Beach, Oregon. Their barking sounds almost like taunts in the fishing offices along the shore. A third generation river guide, Sean Carpenter, says sea lions have taken to stealing fish right off his customers' lines.

Mr. SEAN CARPENTER (River Guide, Port of Gold Beach, Oregon): There have been days where maybe a hundred fish were caught, hooked all day, and 25 landed. Seventy-five go to the sea lions.

BANSE: Guides like Carpenter have gotten nasty e-mails and letters from clients who vow never to return. Maybe you would feel the same way if you paid $125.00 per person for a fruitless, half-day fishing trip.

Mr. CARPENTER: People get very angry. And there's not a lot of I can do. I mean, other than the paint ball, the banging around, trying to scare them, none of that works anymore.

BANSE: So, Gold Beach is set to become the first West Coast community to hire its own civilian sea lion warden. They'll patrol the bay this summer, going to the limit of what's legal to drive off the flippered fish fiends.

Squirting them, making noise is okay. Hurting them is not. Volunteers also plan to nail plywood barricades around favored sea lion hull outs. But Sean Carpenter figures the only long-term solution is resumed hunting.

Mr. CARPENTER: They're very ugly when they've got your fish in their mouth. But they are a beautiful animal, and I don't know how people are going to react to hunting them. But that's what really needs to be done.

BANSE: Open season on California sea lions isn't as far-fetched as it would have been a few years ago. The animals have been highly protected since the early 1970's. At that time, hunting had depressed their numbers to one-fourth or one-fifth of what we see today.

Scientists have documented a tremendous recovery. The sea lion population seems to have rebounded all the way to its natural peak.

That according to marine mammal special Brent Norberg, of the Federal Fishery Service.

Mr. BRENT NORBERG: Now, the population growth rate appears to be slowing or leveling off, which would give us an indication that it's reaching its balance point.

BANSE: Once these findings are published, states can apply to quote, "manage their sea lions."

Columbia River Indian tribes are all for it. They want more aggressive control of sea lions that feast on weak salmon runs and precious sturgeon. Oregon and Washington State have started a new offensive.

(Soundbite of firecrackers)

BANSE: This is human versus animal combat on the Columbia River. State Wildlife Officers are firing salvos of firecracker shells, rubber bullets, and underwater charges to drive off a herd of about a hundred sea lions. They're feasting below the first dam.

(Soundbite of rifle shots)

BANSE: The states bordering the big western river are applying for federal permission to permanently remove the most voracious offenders. Removal could entail capture and relocation or killing, starting next year.

But killing even a few of the charismatic sea lions is bound to stir passions in the animal rights community.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse.

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