Salmon vs. Sea Lions

Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife recently sought and received permission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to kill California sea lions, protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, on the grounds that the sea lions are endangering chinook salmon and steelhead populations near Bonneville Dam.  The killings must be limited to repeat offenders who fail to permanently leave the area after nonlethal hazing.

As of April 12, 2012, four salmon-eating California sea lions have been captured at Bonneville Dam and killed by lethal injection.  Per the judge’s ruling, up to 30 sea lions can be killed.

In a bizarre twist, James Lecky, the federal employee who authorized the sea lion killings, has a checkered past with the salmon.  In 2002, Lecky was alleged to have given an illegal order to cut in-stream flows on the Klamath River resulting in the death of 33,000 salmon.

Salmon fishing is a huge part of the economy in Oregon and Washington.  It can hardly be coincidental that the states are going after the sea lions during a season where record-high numbers of Chinook salmon are predicted along the Pacific coast.  Although the California Department of Fish and Game says that very predication and the fact that sea lions eat only a small percentage of the salmon population makes the killings even more perplexing.

Sea Lion eating salmon

California sea lion eating a salmon Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Sea lions are natural salmon predators however they have been documented to take only between 0.4 percent and 4.2 percent of the salmon run while commercial fishing and the dam itself wipes out close to 27% according to Sharon Young, Humane Society marine issues field director.  Even Portland’s own fisheries unit supports those figures.

According to a report by the US Army Corps of Engineers – Portland District Fisheries Field Unit, Pinniped Deterrents at Bonneville Dam 2005-2006, the percent take of salmon by pinnipeds was 0.4% in 2002, 1.1% in 2003, 1.9% in 2004 and 3.4% in 2005.


The Salmon Have Bigger Issues

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Wild US Pacific Salmon Report states that human activity is the most notable cause of salmon depletion.  Habitat loss caused by hatcheries, overfishing, and bycatch of threatened or endangered salmon species are a few of the main concerns identified in the report.  However, Oregon and Washington chinook salmon is listed as a “good alternative” in the aquarium’s sustainable seafood guide “Seafood Watch” indicating that they are still considered ocean-friendly choices and not in the dire straits that Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife claim.  There is no mention of sea lions or other pinnipeds as a cause of salmon depletion in the report.

Ironically, data from 1991 to 1993 indicates that drift gillnets, used for salmon fishing, in Washington and Oregon killed an estimated 200 harbor seals per year in the Columbia River.  The report does state that these levels of mortality are unlikely to have significant negative effects on the the pinniped population and that gillnet fishing has decreased since the 1990s but it is interesting to note that marine mammals are part, albeit a small part, of the unintentional marine life destruction caused by bycatch while fishing for salmon.

Another issue threatening the salmon are non-native fish.  Oregon and Washington’s stock non-native bass and walleye which eat small and juvenile salmon, posing a significant risk to the survival of salmon.

A healthy marine ecosystem is crucial to the health of our planet.  Without marine biodiversity, humankind would suffer greatly.  Marine organisms are crucial to almost all biogeochemical processes of the biosphere.


How to Help Protect the Sea Lions (and the Salmon)

The Human Society of the United States filed a lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration arguing that the killings violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act and that the government has failed to show that sea lions kill a significantly large number of salmon.  The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is also monitoring the situation and taking steps to protect the sea lions.

Consider making a donation to both of these organizations to show your support:

Humane Society of the United States

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society


If you oppose the culling of the sea lions please contact the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife and demand that they call off the cull.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber – (503) 378-4582

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – (503) 947-6000

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire – (360) 902-4111

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife – (360) 902-2200

NOAA Office of Protected Resources – (301) 427-8400


And finally, sign the petition:

California Sea Lion

California Sea Lion rehabilitated at the Marine Mammal Care Center

*Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997). Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: University of British Columbia (UBC) Press. pp. 191–192.

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