Pacific Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions Scapegoated, Targeted

After 25 years of protection, California sea lions may soon be targets of a large-scale federally approved killing program. Sea lions are estimated to number more than 150,000 in California, Oregon, and Washington waters, up from a low estimate of 15,000 in the early 1970's. Pacific harbor seals total approximately 300,000, with 250,000 of these in Alaskan waters. A recent NMFS draft proposal to Congress calls for a return to lethal taking. NMFS's controversial proposed management plan recommends killing seals and sea lions to protect dwindling salmon and steelhead populations and to reduce competition for fish between pinnipeds and humans. While admitting the "incomplete documentation" and "limited...scientific information on the nature and extent of conflicts between pinnipeds and other elements of West Coast ecoystems," NMFS recommends that Congress: Sanction "lethal removal by state or federal resource agency officials of California sea lions or Pacific harbor seals where these species are impacting Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed salmonids [or]..are adversely impacting salmonid populations identified as being of special concern by states, or where these pinniped species are in conflict with human activities." The lethal removal allowance requires that non-lethal deterrents be attempted first. Currently, to get authority for lethal removal of pinnipeds at sites with salmonid conflicts, a state is required to demonstrate that individual pinnipeds are having a "significant negative impact on slamonids populations listed or proposed listed under the ESA...while time and resources are expended attempting to fully assess the effects of predation, depressed salmonid populations at some sites could continue to decline due to pinnipeds, even if other sources of mortality may have been curtailed." The proposal also would permit commercial fishermen to kill sea lions and harbor seals in order to protect gear and catch.

Declining Salmon Populations

The tragic decline of salmon and steelhead in this century has nothing to do with predation by pinnipeds. Since the building of the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin river in the mid-1940's, the river's king salmon runs have decreased by 90%. California's Trinity, Klamath, and Sacramento rivers and Oregon's Columbia have seen similar losses. Multiple populations within seven species of Pacific salmonids and steelhead are currently listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

Steelhead trout and all salmon species are anadromous fish, meaning they are born and spawn in freshwater streams and rivers but reach maturity and live much of their lives in the sea. Blocked stream and river access and water quality and quantity for fish and eggs in the streams, not marine mammal predation, have caused their decline. The 1988 Annual Report of the California Advisory Committee on Salmon and Steelhead Trout points to agricultual diversions, temperature-altering reservoir water releases, logging, grazing, mining, land development, and road construction: "The principle problems causing salmon and steelhead trout declines can be tied to one vital issue: water...Salmon and steelhead are threatened most by inadequate streamflows and the loss or degradation of habitat."

In some cases, stocks are now so precariously low due to freshwater mismanagement that they are vulnerable to the relatively small effects of human and marine mammal fishing. The NMFS report itself admits, "predation by pinnipeds is not a principal factor in the proposed listing under the ESA of any salmonid populations." NMFS's targeting of marine mammals in view of their small impact is misguided.

According to scientist Pat Higgins, salmon and steelhead are not generally a principal food for seals and sea lions. In fact,seals prefer flat bottom fish such as sole, halibut, and flounder. Predation of salmonids by pinnipeds is more typically the result of human-activity-induced bottlenecks along the salmon and steelhead migration routes. A prime example is Seattle's BallardLocks, whose design creates a feeding station for sea lions. Elsewhere, diversion, siltation and deforestation have destroyed key estuarine areas. Pools that used to be deep enough to conceal the fish are now shallow and wood-bare. Fish are forced into the higher temperatures of the estuarine waters and the increased catch risk. At least one study indicates that low water in the estuaries is a determining factor in salmonid-pinniped interactions. In high water years on one river, when depth and increased turbidity concealed the fish, fewer than 10% of the fish had seal scars. In low, clear water, more than 33% of the fish had scars.

Given the low fish numbers, the management problem is urgent. Alyssa Rosen of the Sierra Club's Salmon Project calls for more complete enforcement by federal agencies. She points out that NMFS is lagging in its issuance of land use guidelines to protect coho salmon. They are basically giving [Charles] Hurwitz [owner of the famed old-growth Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, California] a present by not regulating industrial logging. It's all smoke and mirrors."


A great deal of pressure to allow the killing of seals and sea lions has come from fishermen. Some fishermen have reported losing more than half of their catch their Fishermen regularly lose half or more of their catch this way, and often some gear. Yet many fishermen themselves, frustrated as they are with their losses, see shooting sea lions as an unsatisfactory solution. Zeke Grader, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations explained that once fishermen get fish on their hooks or in their nets, the sea lions "figure out how to get the food. Grader added that non-lethal deterrents such as seal bombs, shooting away from the sea lions, recorded sounds of orcas (predators of sea lions), and treating fish with a bad-tasting solution "are not working." He pointed to the need for more research and noted that"responsible fishery advocates are not saying the sea lions are the problem. Clearly, it's been the severe habitat degradation." He cited the need for long-term habitat restoration efforts, including upstream and upslope regulations, coldwater releases from dams, removal of small hydroelectric dams, better fish screens in diversions to small streams, and better flow regimes. The key thing is "to protect watersheds." As far as sea lions, Grader said, "I'm fearful about what NMFS has proposed. They're saying go ahead and kill sea lions. This is going to create a more dangerous situation on the ocean and a big public relations problem for the reputation of the fishing industry." He reiterated that there would still be a huge salmonid management problem even "if we had no sea lions."

Solutions and Decisions

One proposed solution to avoid the killing of seals and sea lions is to pursue temporary relocation of pinnipeds from key areas to protect the fish while buying time for remediation of the real causes of fish depletion.

Meanwhile, NMFS's proposed solution continues to generate intense criticism for scapegoating marine mammals and failing to address the real threats to the fish.


International Marine Mammal Project
300 Broadway, suite 28    San Francisco, CA  94133
or fax 415/788-7324