THE WORLD-FAMOUS East Mooring Basin California sea lions are back! Their barking again graces the Astoria waterfront, and helps me to fall asleep in my bed just up the hill from their favorite hangout in Astoria. It’s good to hear them, because not too long ago, the whole lot of them seemed destined for oblivion.
You see, sea lions eat salmon, which are endangered in these parts, and that means we have to do something about it. But the trouble is, sea lions are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), passed in 1972, in more compassionate times. When recent salmon runs were small, there was a clamor for getting rid of the pinniped menace. News stories told of bullet-riddled sea lions being killed, presumably by irate fishermen, who were tired of the methodical approach taken by the authorities, who captured, relocated, harassed, and even killed some, to prevent them from their share of the river’s feasts.
But the California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), the major species of pinniped that hangs out here most of the year, remain on the docks at the East Mooring Basin, as well as the rocks by Pier 39, and at other fish processing areas in the region. According to Julie Tennis, an educator who visits schools in the area and tells students (and adults) about sea lions, our bunch started visiting the Hawthorn Cannery (now Pier 39) again in the 80s, after passage of the MMPA. I met Tennis at the Astoria Sunday Market in July, where she had a booth with lots of photos of sea lions, and we had a great conversation. We continued talking at the East Mooring Basin recently, when the sea lions were again hogging the docks, putting on a show for several locals and tourists. They had returned from their summer “vacation” at the breeding colonies in southern California (hence their name).
Some people are under the impression that our sea lions are non-native, and invasive, because they disrupt a major economic activity – fishing. However, the range of the California sea lion is from Mexico to Canada and Alaska, and they’ve been in the Columbia for many centuries, at least, as documented by the native Americans in the region and by archeological data. They were eating salmon and other Columbia River fish all that time, with no appreciable reduction in the salmon runs until European settlers arrived in the 1800s. More recently, with the introduction of dams and overfishing on the Columbia, the salmon runs have been reduced to less than 1% of their traditional (pre-European settlement) size. And sea lions were hunted to near extinction over that time, so both species were on the ropes.
Today, both sea lions and salmon are protected. Since sea lion populations have rebounded quite well, some have called for dropping their protections. But Tennis told me that sea lions are still being killed, and are being poisoned by industrial activity upstream. She participates in the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which uses volunteers to locate stranded marine mammals and seeks to identify causes of their disease and death. The network is coordinated by OSU in Newport, with the local coordinator being Dr. Debbie Duffield at Portland State University (503-725-4078, email@example.com). Learn more about how you can participate at http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/ommsn.
Tennis is not sure what can be done to resolve the dispute between local fishermen and sea lions. She understands that it’s tough for fishermen these days, but says that the real issue is “access to the fish, not the fish.” In other words, the policies being proposed to deal with the dwindling populations of salmon have less to do with ensuring recovery and sustainable runs of salmon, and more to do with keeping the catch numbers steady now. In the meantime, Tennis is hoping that educating people about sea lions will help us see that they are a smart, adaptable species, like ourselves, and worth keeping here on the Columbia.
For more information on Columbia River sea lions, see Tennis’ blog at http://www.columbiariversealions.com/, or visit the website of the Sea Lion Defense Brigade at http://www.sealiondefensebrigade.org/, or contact them at (503)568-6955 or firstname.lastname@example.org.