A peculiar war is being waged on the Columbia River as tribes seek to keep sea lions from decimating salmon runs, and the sea mammals refuse to give up the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Three days a week, Bobby Begay and his two-man crew — Reggie Sergeant and Ted Walsey Jr. — from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission board a boat at the North Bonneville dock to mount an offensive against predatory sea lions.
The men are enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and take their duties seriously.
They are bound by their culture to protect salmon, one of the First Foods granted by the Creator to nourish their people.
In the Creation story passed from generation to generation, salmon offered its body to help new humans survive. Water then promised to provide a home for the salmon. Each year, before fishing can begin, the tribes honor water and salmon for their sacrifices.
It has become a source of frustration for the tribes, said Begay, to have the tail waters below The Dalles and Bonneville dams become a rich feeding ground for California sea lions, which have been joined in recent years by their bigger cousins, Steller sea lions from Alaska and Canada.
“The word’s getting out,” said Jeremy FiveCrows, communications liaison for the commission.
Tribal oral tradition told of the occasional sea lion being spotted as far upstream as Celilo Falls but never in the significant numbers of modern times.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 forbids harming of sea lions, so non-lethal deterrence methods must be used. The California sea lions typically weigh 200 to 300 pounds when they arrive for the season and Stellers can top 1,000 pounds. The weight of sea lions has often doubled by the time they leave, said Begay. Each sea lion can eat two to three salmon per day. However, they often take a bite of the fish large enough to kill it, but don’t consume the meat. Since the salmon are returning to spawn, the kills also end the next generation of fish.
Doug Hatch, senior fishery biologist for the commission, said the tail waters below each dam are the equivalent of a fast food restaurant for the sea lions: Food is easily available and plentiful.
The problem of fish kills became problematic by 2000 and, about five years later, Begay was hired to “haze” the sea lions.
The commission works in partnership with the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The primary “ammunition” for hazing is a firecracker stuffed into a shotgun shell that can be fired a range of 40 to 50 yards. The shell lands upriver from the sea lion and explodes upon impact. It’s “boom” is enough to get most mammals moving in the right direction – downriver.
When sea lions don’t cooperate, a “bomb” is tossed into the water by hand. That device resembles a giant firecracker and has enough sand in the shell to make it sink below the waterline, where it detonates to carry sound for a longer distance. Begay said the device was redesigned so the noise was more muffled after nearby residents and fishermen complained.
He herds the sea lions far enough downriver that it will take them most of the night to return.
In addition, Begay’s crew travels the Columbia to Astoria twice each week to assess how many of the predators are working the lower sections of the river.
“They know our boat for sure,” he said, pointing out a pod of sea lions that began swimming downriver as soon as the vessel approached.
Both man and sea lion know the drill, which plays out pretty much the same way every day, regardless of weather.
“Hazing is not a long-term solution,” said Begay, who grew up gillnetting on the river and spends about nine months of every year working with fish. When not hazing sea lions to protect salmon, he is tagging them or clipping the adipose fin off hatchery salmon to delineate them from wild stock, which cannot be kept.
“I’ve worked almost every creek, river or tributary,” he said. His four children have learned the same skills, a vital part of their heritage.
Begay said seasonal workers, this year Sergeant and Walsey, undergo safety training before boarding the boat and handling ammo.
“They grew up hunting, so they are pretty good shots,” he said.
Sergeant is so remarkable about spotting sea lions even underwater that he usually works as spotter.
“That guy can see 200 to 300 yards away,” Begay said of Sergeant.
When asked how he keeps his eyesight so good, Sergeant agreed with Begay’s assessment of “Cheeseburgers.”
Sergeant signals Walsey toward the direction of a sleek shape just under the surface. It is Begay ‘s job to signal whether each shot should be taken and, if so, whether it should be skimmed across the water, arched high, or angled for faster delivery.
Inside the cabin of Research Vessel 4, Begay records the number of sea lions spotted and rounds of ammunition used in hazing. He also has an eye on the instruments and navigation system that allow him to steer clear of obstacles.
By law, no more than five shots can be fired around each mammal.
When the sea lions first began to show up, said Begay, they were tranquilized and transported to aquariums across the country.
During a trip to Sea World in Orlando, Fla., he and his wife, Megan, encountered a sea lion who never took his eye off them. Begay recognized him as one of the mammals that had been captured.
“It was a one in a million that we would both be there,” he said.
While legal and political battles rage about whether lethal measures should be taken to stop sea lion depredation, Begay is behind the wheel of a patrol boat from March through May each year.
Although he enjoys spectacular views from the water, there is not much job satisfaction since sea lion numbers continue to go up.
NOAA now estimates that sea lions consume about 5 percent of the total spring salmon run each year. The sea lion population is estimated to grow by about 6 percent a year.
Fewer fish means less fishing and that causes a hit on the economy that affects commercial, sportfishing and tribal gillnetting operations, said Hatch.
California sea lions leave after each spring run is over and don’t return until the next year. However, Hatch said Stellers have started returning for the Fall Chinook run, although in smaller numbers — at least for the time being.
“Now the impact is nearly year-round,” said Hatch.
According to FiveCrows, during the 29-day hazing period in 2017, 311 California sea lions were hazed and 592 Steller sea lions.
The average munitions use was 51 shells and 28 seal bombs per hazing trip.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers keeps track of the predation of salmon near the dam. The fish are listed as an endangered species and given special protection from human activities under federal law.
Hatch said it is ironic that sea lions, with populations that have recovered enough not to be listed as threatened, are being allowed to kill a significant number of an endangered species.
He said biologists believe that sea lions found their way to Bonneville Dam, and then through fish passages and navigation locks to The Dalles Dam, after following smelt runs to the Cowlitz River, which is located by Longview, Wash.
While hanging out there, the sea lions are believed to have discovered that salmon were going even further upriver and decided to follow them.
They apparently communicated to other sea lions that there was good eating up the Columbia, and Bonneville Dam has become a destination eatery. The lions that make the 146-mile journey up the river are all males, said Hatch.
The females remain in California and points north with their pups.
The Corps uses the “Shake and Bake” tag on sea lions to monitor what they eat. When sea lions bite the head off the salmon and then shake it loose, the erratic movement registers and monitors know that another fish is dead.
At the end of a work day, Begay ties the boat up in North Bonneville.
He said the sea lions will spend the night returning to their feeding grounds.
He knows the same sea lions he drove away are likely to be back at the dam when he returns the next morning.
Begay will resume the fight tomorrow; his evening plans include smoking salmon treated with his secret recipe.
“I do a pretty good job,” he said, declining to provide more information.
“It wouldn’t be secret if I told you,” he said.
The commission spends about $200,000 a year to haze sea lions, conduct surveys of their numbers and estimate how many fish they have eaten.
For the last 15 years or so, Hatch said states and tribes have been allowed to kill some of the sea lions, but the process to get to that point is so laborious that few kills take place.
“We’re not about killing sea lions, we’re about saving salmon,” said Hatch of the commission’s support of stopping predatory sea lions with lethal measures.
The Humane Society of the United States and Wild Fish Conservancy are two of the primary opponents of lethal force against sea lions. These groups and others contend the real threats to salmon are climate change, habitat destruction and manmade dams.
“Sea lions have been turned into that mythical beast, the scapegoat,” stated a position paper published by the humane society. “Rather than helping the fish, killing sea lions simply distracts attention from the government’s failure to address the much larger and real problems facing salmon recovery.
“The battle to save the sea lions from unnecessary death – and to help the fish by spotlighting the challenges to their recovery that are being ignored – has been a long one, but it is one to which we are deeply committed.”
U.S. Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., are seeking to amend the Mammal Protection Act so that state and tribal wildlife managers can kill sea lions preying on salmon, steelhead and other fish in the Columbia and its tributaries.
Their bill would allow no more than 100 sea lions to be killed for one year but would include renewal eligibility.
“The number we’re talking about removing would have zero impact on the sea lion population,” said Hatch.
Herrera Beutler’s bill is the sixth attempt to address sea lion depredation in the Columbia. The commission is hopeful the measure will be approved soon so that salmon runs can be better protected.