Sea Lions Becoming "Nightmare" for Fishers in U.S. Northwest

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
October 24, 2006

The once rare sea lions of the U.S. Pacific Coast have rebounded in such numbers that they're now taking a big bite out of local fish populations, officials say.

California sea lions are protected by a federal law passed in 1972, when the animals numbered scarcely 50,000.

But today some 250,000 sea lions live along the Pacific Coast, according to the latest count done in 2003, and the robust population is not welcomed everywhere.

In Gold Beach, Oregon, sea lions are snatching salmon off the lines of anglers.

"The animals are so bold they'll come right up to the boats and grab fish that have already been netted," said Garth Griffin, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland, Oregon. "It's a nightmare."

At Ballard Locks in Seattle, Washington, the animals are partly to blame for eating a local population, or run, of steelhead trout into extinction.

Now biologists are concerned about the effects hungry sea lions are having on the Columbia River, where wild fish populations include several endangered species.

(See Washington map.)

This spring, sea lions ate about four percent of the Columbia's total run of 88,000 chinook salmon.

Under the 1972 law, the pesky sea lions can be scared off using nonlethal methods. But efforts involving firecrackers and rubber bullets were largely ineffective.

As a result, on October 16 lawmakers from Washington State announced that they would introduce federal legislation allowing limited sea lion hunts on the Columbia, to stem the animals' effects on salmon populations.

The proposed bill has not yet been introduced, however, and would likely take years for approval.

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