Albion Monitor /News
The Trouble with Tribbles is Nothing Compared to...

The Problem With Pinnipeds

by Andrea Granahan

Any Star Trek fan can tell you that the trouble with tribbles is that they're wonderfully adorable but multiply dangerously fast. But the fictional trouble with tribbles is nothing compared to the very real life problem with pinnipeds -- those cute creatures we all love to watch cavort, sea lions and seals.

The pinniped population explosion has reached such unprecedented levels that they now threaten endangered fish runs. The critters have driven one major environmental law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act into a collision course with another, the Endangered species Act.

Ironically, California's 180,000 sea lions enjoy more protection than the 5,000 mountain lions
The Ballard Locks in Seattle have become notorious for the "Herschel" phenomenon when a couple animals -- both dubbed Herschel -- were able to raise havoc with a salmon run that had been declared endangered. Their appetites swallowed millions of dollars and thousands of hours of labor spent on trying to save the run from extinction.

One greedy fellow named Hando (sometimes called Hando the Horrible by fishery officials) alone destroyed so many fish, ensconced comfortably on the fish ladder that was supposed to save the endangered salmon, that he created a furor in the news.

Authorities were unable to drive him away with non-lethal methods; even relocating him hundreds of miles away did little good. Hando always found his way back in time for the annual salmon run that the government was spending millions to restore. Finally the feds gave permission to wildlife officials to kill the sea lion. Florida's Sea World offered him a home instead and flew him across the country. (He died shortly after retiring to the sunny coast and not many in Seattle mourned his loss.)

But as bad as it got at the Ballard Locks, nowhere is the problem so acute as in California where the lusty lions have increased their numbers to a whopping 180,000. Ironically, those huge numbers of sea lions enjoy more protection under the law than California's 5,000 mountain lions.

Sea lions sometimes even choose their favorite fishing boats, following them faithfully all the way out and back
Protected by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the sea lions have boldly gone where no pinnipeds have dared to go before. They have left the coast to move upriver in pursuit of anglers' catches, invaded wharves to the point of sinking boats in marinas, and even moved on to the rescue vessels of the Coast Guard forcing the Coast Guardsmen to resort to high pressure hoses to get their boats back.

Commercial salmon trollers and sports anglers have been fighting a bitter battle with the sea lions for years -- a battle that fishermen always lose, sometimes along with a third or more of the catch. In some ports, rafts of sea lions even choose their favorite fishing boats and follow them faithfully all the way out and back, gleefully munching on the fish before they can be reeled in.

Farther south in La Jolla, harbor seals (another pinniped) have taken over a popular beach known as the "Baby Beach," named for the natural shallow pool that made it a perfect place for very small children. As their numbers grew, they commandeered the main beach, expanding their territory from a rocky island offshore.

San Francisco's famous Pier 39 surrendered its new yacht marina to a invasion of sea lion bulls in the late 1980s. It was finally decided the expense of building a new marina could be made up by the income from tourists the animals drew to the pier.

From selling sea lion food to tourists at the Monterey Wharf, the town moved to prohibit feeding the animals even before NMFS made it law. That move came after the sea lions began sinking boats at their moorings. At some wharves signs have been posted warning tourists about aggressive individual sea lions. Even a Coast Guard captain was attacked during a recent invasion of the Coast Guard docks.

"We wouldn't have the problem if salmon had not been allowed to become so depleted in the first place"
In Monterey, sports fishermen, in addition to local business groups, have finally banded together in desperation to form the Fishermen's Alliance of Monterey Bay (FAMB). The group is circulating a petition that says the mammals have been improperly managed and demands NMFS take action to control them or return management of the species to the state. Not on the petition, but an idea FAMB has generated, is to have humane groups that care for sick sea lions and return them to the wild sterilize the animals before they do so.

According to FAMB, sea lions are even threatening the safety of small boaters they have become so aggressive in the Monterey Bay area.

"Even environmentalists are on our side," said Richard Hughett, Executive Director of FAMB.

The prestigious environmental organization Center for Marine Conservation is acknowledges the problem but takes a cautious approach to solutions.

Bob Irvin, the Deputy Vice President, said, "We wouldn't have the problem if salmon stocks had not been allowed to become so depleted in the first place. Clearly, where there are conflicts between sea lions and humans it can be worked out without declaring open season on sea lions."

Hughett points to the massive numbers of fish returning to hatcheries bearing sea lion scars, sometimes up to 75 percent, he says.

"And those are the ones that made it. We don't know how many fish the sea lions actually get."

FAMB is seeking to collect 100,000 signatures on its petition in two years, just in time for the next reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"The timing is right if they want to have an impact, " said Al Didier of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.

New recommendations include right for fishermen to kill sea lions
The commission has already made its own impact on the problem by providing critical information to Washington DC. The reauthorized Magnuson Act called for a report from NMFS on "interactions between salmonids and the Pacific ecosystem and the pinnipeds."

NMFS was scheduled to deliver the report over in October, 1995 but it had failed to budget any money for such a study. When it appeared that the report would simply be an outdated literature study, the commission offered to use money it had obtained permission to spend on collecting new data. NMFS postponed its report until the commission had finished its work.

The commission employed the fish and wildlife departments of Oregon, Washington and California to do short term studies. It also paid for new technology to be used in analyzing pinniped stomach contents that the states still had preserved from earlier studies. The results indicate the animals eat more salmonids than previously thought. The work has also tracked seasonal distribution of the animals.

The commission and NMFS met after the NMFS report was completed in November, 1996 to discuss recommendations that will be made to Congress concerning the animals. The studies resulted in four major recommendations which were announced at the end of March:

  • "Zonal Management" which would determine areas in which threatened or endangered species were suffering from pinniped predation. If non-lethal methods were ineffective driving off the predators, then authorities could kill them.
  • NMFS spend more time and money in developing effective non-lethal ways of controlling sea lions and harbor seals.
  • That commercial fishermen be permitted to apply for the right to kill sea lions and seals when its necessary to protect catches and gear after they demonstrate a need and prove they can properly identify the target animals. Since 1994 fishermen have been prohibited from using lethal methods. This ability would be reinstated but under controlled situations.
  • That real data be collected that is site specific so the rivers and streams with problems can be identified.
  • After a 90 day comment public period is over, the comments and reports will be sent on to Congress which can then schedule hearings prior to reauthorizing the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1998.

    Problems are often the result of individual animals, like Hando, which discover an easy food source
    The fishing community, both commercial and recreational, is hoping NMFS will now be forced to take notice of the problem. The industry has accused NMFS of an Alfred E. Newman "What me worry?" response to the problem in the past, but lately NMFS has begun to recognize that the problem of overpopulation could be a real one.

    "NMFS is not willing to accept reality and keeps insisting it's not a problem," said Bob Fletcher.

    Didier said the problem is legislative as well as biological, "The Marine Mammal Protection Act has been successful. The California gray whale for example, has recovered under it and the numbers are now back to historical levels. But the act was not designed to handle its success. It doesn't plan for management when you get there. Now we can have the Marine Mammal Protection Act in conflict with the Endangered Species Act," he explained.

    The conflict erupted when everyone recognized a species such as the Sacramento Spring Run Chinook are down to less than a hundred fish. While human fishermen can be taken off the water when the fish come through San Francisco Bay, for example, by shortening fishing seasons, nothing is being done about moving sea lions that recognize no limits.

    Didier says problems are often the result of individual animals, like Hando, which discover an easy food source and can sometimes be solved by dealing with the individual animal.

    "It is often learned behavior," Didier said.

    Herring fishermen, operating under strict fishing quotas and doing well, have learned to live with the sea lions
    Herring fishermen in San Francisco Bay can attest to the ability of the animals to learn. The first year the gillnet fishery opened the sea lions encountering these underwater walls of food simply tore through them in their excitement, wrecking a lot of gear. By the second year the sea lions had learned to share the catch by simply plucking it from the nets without destroying them.

    The sea lions also learned the round-haul nets of the larger herring boats provided whole bags of food for them. They now leap into the nets by the dozens while they are being hauled in, gorging themselves. Herring fishermen, operating under strict fishing quotas and doing well, have learned to live with the sea lions.

    There have been desperate attempts with non-lethal means of getting rid of the sea lions. Most experiments have involved noises makers of some sort from high pitched noises to "seal bomb" explosives.

    The fishermen have a nickname for such devices -- they are called "dinner bells." The animals have quickly learned that they can endure the irritation if they know food is in the vicinity. Fishermen have even tried towing mock killer whales behind their boats, but that made the vessels too difficult to steer to even attempt long term experiments.

    One new device that looks promising, according to Bob Fletcher, involves pressure as well as noise. The pressure is not injurious to sea lions but is extremely irritating the inner ear.

    "It's worked in tests so far and is now ready for extensive testing at sea," Fletcher said. There is an effort underway to build three prototypes and test them for 100 days at sea. It would take $160,000 to accomplish that, and then manufacturers would have to be found that could produce the units for under $3000 to make them practical.

    "It's the best hope we have," said Fletcher.

    Places where the mammals have high entertainment value such as Pier 39 areas could be set aside as refuges
    Zeke Grader, Executive director of the PCFFA (Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens Associations) has made a more extreme proposal than anything coming out of the commission or FAMB for dealing with the multitudes of sea lions. He suggests we eat them -- well, actually, sell them to countries that do eat them, such as Norway where sea lion sausage is popular.

    "We've got to quit treating them like pets and like a resource instead," Grader said.

    He suggests that professional hunters who are trained marksmen, not fishermen who are amateur shots working on rocking boats, take a harvest of adult males each year, and the skins and meat be sold to provide funding for the management program.

    " Look at the state's 5000 mountain lions. You can get a permit to kill the mountain lions if they are attacking livestock or if they are a problem in a neighborhood," Grader explained.

    As shocking as it might sound at first hearing, in California's pre-European past, the Native American tribes used to hunt sea lions for food. Whole middens of sea lions remains have been uncovered. In addition, the state's grizzlies used to enjoy sea lion meals often enough that the animals treated the shore as dangerous territory, not a vacation wonderland as they appear to be doing now. Another precedent is alligator management in the southeast where alligator sausage and jerky is a common product.

    Grader says that in places where the mammals have high entertainment value such as Pier 39 areas could be set aside as refuges and the sea lions would learn they were safe there and congregate.

    He says such a program would restore "a healthy fear of man" in the animals. It would also keep them to coastal areas and probably put an end to them going up rivers in pursuit of salmon and steelhead.

    Bob Irvin, of the Center for Marine Conservation, said any proposals for lethal eradication of wildlife such as the Angel Island deer hunt near San Francisco, has created public controversy. He went on to say that he felt pursuing non-lethal means of removing animals from areas where they have become a problem is a more desirable solution.

    "When the Marine Mammal Protection Act comes up for renewal in two years we are certainly ready to address solutions. Grader proposing to make sausage out of them would certainly generate some discussion about the problem," Irvin chuckled.

    Andrea Granahan has reported on the commercial fishing industry since 1979. She is the former publisher and editor of the Bodega bay Navigator, and now operates her own freelance news service. She has won numerous awards for her environmental reporting and feature writing. She makes her home in Bodega

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    Albion Monitor April 3, 1997 (

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