For years a battle's been raging over how best to protect the dwindling number of salmon along the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River. But a new development has brought attention to a particularly daunting facet of the problem: sea lions, which are endangered, are eating no less than four percent of the river's salmon, which are perhaps more endangered, according to Brian Gorman of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is attempting to manage, simultaneously, the two fragile species.
Gorman says this weekend the situation grew more cruel, when six federally-protected sea lions were found shot to death as they lay in open traps below the Bonneville Dam, the point on the river when sea lions do their eating.
"It was a pretty despicable act and a cowardly act," Gorman says. "They had no means of escape." The parties responsible face a $100,000 fine for each violation and one year in jail.
Gorman says the situation is difficult: when officers release the sea lions, they generally swim right back to the damn. "On a busy day, we count 40 to 50," he says. "One day we counted 64."
Gorman says efforts to place sea lions in zoos have been slowed by available spots, and that a court order has stopped occasional putting to sleep of problem animals. There are 250,000 such sea lions on the West Coast, he says, and theoretically only some of them know how to swim up the dam for the easy pickings there.
Meanwhile, critics say the Bonneville sea lions are a scapegoat, that there are much more dire factors — the dams themselves, pollution, human encroachment — that are reducing salmon numbers.
But Gorman says the sea lion situation needs addressing just as much as any other factor. "We need to look at all the problems and try to fix all of the problems."