The sea lions are eating an increasing number of threatened and endangered salmon that need protection while damaging a sportfishing industry that is a major part of the state economy.
PORTLAND — Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt says hungry California sea lions that gobble up salmon on the Willamette River may face a tougher control program that includes killing some repeat offenders.
Hunt says fishermen at Willamette Falls in Oregon City have told him the sea lion problem is getting worse, with some of the animals stealing salmon off fishing lines or out of nets right next to boats.
The sea lions are eating an increasing number of threatened and endangered salmon that need protection while damaging a sportfishing industry that is a major part of the state economy, Hunt said.
"It's a very significant issue and something that requires careful action, but action," Hunt said Tuesday.
At a public hearing he organized Monday night in Oregon City, Hunt heard plenty of stories about the huge animals — some approaching half a ton — creating a nuisance and a potential safety hazard on docks and in the river.
One fisherman, Bruce Polley, said Tuesday in an interview he had a male sea lion snatch a fish off a line as he was hauling it in to determine whether it was a wild or hatchery salmon.
"This 800-pound sea lion comes out from under my boat and literally took it off the line, within a foot of my hand for sure," Polley said. "It scared the heck out of me."
Another fisherman, Chad Beatty, said the animals have become so accustomed to humans they understand that fishermen have landed a salmon when they stand up in a boat or raise a net.
"Every year they just seem to figure it out," Beatty said. "If you're fishing near them, they know it. So everybody stays seated and tries to keep their nets down, and reel it in without the sea lions noticing. But it takes away from the experience."
So far, attempts to haze the sea lions to back them off the fish ladders at the falls during the past month have failed to keep them from returning.
Hunt said hazing also failed on the Columbia River at Bonneville Dam, where the state was granted permission two years ago to trap and kill some California sea lions that have become persistent pests.
Critics of removing sea lions by lethal means include the Humane Society of the United States, which went to federal court to block killing the animals but lost.
The Humane Society has said that hydroelectric dams and fishermen account for nearly all the salmon taken in the Northwest, and sea lions account for only a tiny fraction.
Hunt, however, said the number of salmon is significant and a long-term solution may require an amendment to the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act because sea lions appear to be thriving while salmon remain at risk.
He said a short-term solution to the problem at Willamette Falls may be to increase the hours for state workers who are hazing the animals to drive them downriver.
At Bonneville, meanwhile, one more California sea lion was added Tuesday to the list of those to be killed, bringing the total to 10 this year on the Columbia, said Rick Hargrave, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman.
Five other sea lions trapped at Bonneville were tagged Tuesday with acoustic tracking devices that are glued to their fur to allow biologists to monitor them until they shed the devices during molting, Hargrave said.
Three were protected Steller sea lions and two were California sea lions. Those that had not already been branded were marked so they can be identified if they return to the dam, Hargrave said.