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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sea Lions Versus Steelhead Trout

Air Date: Week of

Terry Fitzpatrick reports from Seattle on a provision in the newly rewritten Marine Mammal Protection Act which allows the killing of marine mammals if they threaten the survival of another species. The measure grew out of a competition between fishermen and sea lions over a declining population of steelhead trout, which are easy prey for sea lions at a dam in Puget Sound.


CURWOOD: Congress has just changed the rules protecting seals, sea lions, whales, and other marine mammals. The revised Marine Mammal Protection Act generally tightens the laws prohibiting fishermen and others from killing them. But it creates a specific loophole which allows the killing of seals and sea lions that threaten the survival of other species. This provision grew out of an unusual situation near Seattle, in which a dam has altered the natural balance between sea lions and the fish they eat. Terry Fitzpatrick reports.

(Sea lion calls)

FITZPATRICK: At a warehouse inside the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, biologist are branding and tagging a 700-lb. California sea lion. He's the season's first catch in a desperate effort to keep sea lions from wiping out this region's steelhead trout.

(Sea lion)

FITZPATRICK: The sea lion will be released in the ocean 200 miles away, and he'll swim back to Seattle in just a couple of weeks. But that's 2 weeks that he won't be eating fish at the Ballard Locks and Dam.


FITZPATRICK: The Ballard facility was built to aid navigation between Puget Sound and the inland waters of Lake Washington. It's 20 feet high and 400 feet across, completely blocking the route fish take on their way to spawn. To make it upstream, steelhead trout have to find a special fish ladder, a passageway only 12 inches wide. Biologist Pat Gearin of the Fisheries Service.

GEARIN: I call this area a killing zone because the sea lions really have the fish cornered in here. They've got them trapped very unlike a natural river system, where you might have escape cover and things like that. So the sea lions definitely have an advantage in here over the fish. A school of fish will come in, they have to find this very small entrance to the fish ladder, they mill around in here, sort of adjust from the saltwater environment to the freshwater. They'll linger around and the sea lions will corner them and sweep them around and just start hammering them in here.

FITZPATRICK: In the past few years, Gearin has captured about 45 sea lions, and moved some of them as far south as California. But trapping sea lions hasn't stopped them from eating up to 60% of the steelhead trying to get past the dam. So next year, Gearin may be using a rifle instead of a cage. The newly rewritten Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the killing of sea lions and seals if they threaten the survival of another species.

(Sea lion colony)

FITZPATRICK: When the Ballard dam was built there were no California sea lions near Seattle. Back then, they were the ones near extinction because they were hunted for fur and blubber. But sea lions have prospered since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was originally passed in 1972, and they're returning to their migratory range. Now, Pat Gearin says, just as the steelhead begin to spawn, about 50 sea lions arrive to spend the winter near Seattle and the Ballard Dam.

GEARIN: It wasn't intended, when it was built 40-50 years ago, to pass fish through a gauntlet of sea lions. You can't point the finger and point all the blame at the sea lions. It's human-created, and I think there's probably in the end going to be some human solutions that we can come up with to solve the problem.

FITZPATRICK: And the problems facing steelhead trout go beyond the Ballard Dam. Upstream, logging and urban growth have damaged the delicate pools where steelhead spawn.

(Flowing stream)

FITZPATRICK: Jay Bennett of the group Trout Unlimited used to fish for steelhead along this stretch of the Cedar River in suburban Seattle. But no longer. The fish are gone.

BENNETT: Many of the problems we have in northwest rivers and streams, particularly in the populated areas here in western Washington, are as a result of habitat degradation. There's no question about that. And of course, what - one of the goals of my organization is to, is to improve the habitat.

FITZPATRICK: But habitat restoration is a long-term goal, and Bennett says it will be meaningless if the few remaining fish get eaten by sea lions at the dam. So Bennett began a lobbying campaign in Congress for extraordinary measures to save the fish and the region's sport fishing.

BENNETT: It's part of our culture, I think, here in the US, to fish. To sports fish, for recreational fishing.

FITZPATRICK: Even if that means killing sea lions so there are fish there to catch?

BENNETT: Well, yes in this case, probably. That's what I mean. But I'm not here to, to profess that we should go in and, and you know, annihilate large numbers of sea lions. All I want to do is prevent this fishery from going into extinction.

FITZPATRICK: The situation has created a dilemma for environmentalists. Some groups have joined the fishermen and support killing sea lions as a temporary measure until steelhead habitat can be restored. But others, like Christina Mourmorini of Greenpeace oppose lethal measures here at the dam.

MOURMORINI: I think we're looking at a very complex situation in a very simplistic manner, a very reductionist manner. We're assuming that nature is sort of this machine where input equals output. You reduce predation and these fish will come back. And I think given the amount of pressures and impacts on the fish species and on the entire system, that's a huge assumption.

FITZPATRICK: Mourmorini suggests redesigning the fish passage at the dam and curbing timber harvests and urban sprawl upstream. She's worried that the short-term solution of killing sea lions will become the only solution. In fact, proposals to improve the fish ladder and restore fish habitat have largely been lost in the sea lion controversy. Mourmorini also worries about the precedent that killing sea lions would set.

MOURMORINI: By putting in place this ability to kill marine mammals, kill nuisance animals, we're really opening a door that we don't know when will ever be shut again. This will become the standard operating procedure that can be applied in all regions, in all cases, in all scenarios, and I think the long-term implications of it are very severe.

(Clicking sounds)

FITZPATRICK: The Fisheries Service is also worried about the long-term implications of killing sea lions. So biologists are trying all sorts of non-lethal ways to keep them away from the steelhead trout. this network of underwater speakers is designed to scare the sea lions. They've also tried shooting the sea lions with rubber-tipped arrows or chasing them with firecrackers. None of these methods seems to work, so Pat Gearin of the Fisheries Service says it may come down to killing them.

GEARIN: I don't really want to see animals killed. I think in some instances it's necessary; I don't think these animals are sacred cows that can be put on a higher level than other species, and I think at some point you have to empower the management agencies with some authority to be able to take care of instances like this.

(Sea lion colony)

FITZPATRICK: This year's steelhead run is almost over, and the sea lions will soon be moving south to California, so none will be killed this year. The showdown will likely come next December, when the trout once again begin their perilous return from the sea. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick in Seattle.



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