PORTLAND, Ore. – The competition between protected sea lions gobbling Columbia River salmon and impatient humans with empty fishing lines has led to vigilante action.
A fisherman shot a sea lion who stole a salmon off the line of a fellow angler Wednesday at a popular fishing spot near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. The sea lion was hit twice but reported alive in the river Wednesday night.
Fishermen have complained that the sea lions eat too many salmon at Bonneville Dam, about 50 miles upriver from the confluence at Portland, as well as elsewhere on the two rivers.
Brian Gorman of National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle says reports of sea lion shootings have increased in the past two years. But it's rare for authorities to identify a fisherman taking aim at a sea lion.
Three states have asked federal permission to kill the more troublesome of the sea lions, a process expected to take more than a year. Fishermen are impatient.
"People are frustrated," said Brian Tarabochia, a fourth-generation fisherman from Astoria. "They're witnessing fish being eaten by the sea lions, when it's a direct impact to their lives."
Still, he said he does not condone illegal shootings. "It's not a good time for a vigilante to be out there," he said.
He said, though, that estimates of the spring salmon run eaten at the dam do not take into account many more devoured in the lower river.
"I don't think every sea lion needs to be killed," he said. "But if they took out the right ones, it would take care of a lot of the issue."
California sea lions are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammals Protection Act. Shooting one can bring stiff fines and jail time.
"We take things like this pretty seriously," Gorman told The Associated Press.
Oregon State Police say a fisherman reportedly hooked a salmon, but a sea lion took it off his line. A 60-year-old Rainier resident fishing nearby shot the sea lion twice with a .22-caliber rifle, state police said.
The shooting will likely be treated as a civil violation, for which offenders are not arrested, Gorman said. In 2003, an Olympia, Wash., man, was fined $7,000 for shooting a sea lion that had been eating salmon on the Columbia River.
Oregon, Washington and Idaho have begun the lengthy process of seeking permission to start "lethal removal" of problem animals under the 1972 law.
Two Washington congressmen want to fast-track the process so states and tribes can kill troublesome animals.
"After trying every trick in the book, this is the only option left to stop the sea lions," said Washington's Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, a sponsor of the bill.
Gorman said that in March a half-dozen sea lions were found shot in the head in Washington's Puget Sound but may have been used for target practice after they died. He said others have been found shot on beaches but did not say if a motive was known.
The sea lions gather at Bonneville Dam for salmon waiting to pass through fish ladders to spawning grounds upriver. By some accounts, the sea lions eat up to 4 percent of the salmon run.
As the sea lions arrive at the dam in late spring, state and federal officials work daily using pyrotechnics and the likes of rubber buckshot to deter the sea lions. But nothing trumps the allure of the fat, tasty spring chinook.
"I got one on the back of the neck with a beanbag, and he didn't even drop the fish he was eating," said Darrell Schmidt of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Robert Stansell, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fish biologist, said the workers need to show nonlethal remedies are ineffective before lethal ones can be used.
Oregon has trapped a few and trucked them to the river's mouth near Astoria, but the sea lions can cover the 144 river miles back to the dam in two days.
Robin Brown of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said there are perhaps 300,000 California sea lions along the Pacific coast, at least six times the number in 1972. He said only 100 or so show up at the dam each spring.
The Humane Society of the United States says the sea lions are a red herring.
It blames the plight of the salmon on poor fishery and water management, hydroelectric dams, damage to spawning areas and other factors.
"It won't save declining salmon runs in the Columbia River, because the sea lions aren't the problem." said Sharon Young, national marine issues field director for the group. "It seems that it is easier to scapegoat the sea lions than to try to address these other more politically charged and complex issues."