For anglers who enjoy catching salmon near Astoria, the California sea lion is an established menace.
The farther out one travels at the river’s mouth, the more they’ll see the stinky, loud, salmon-guzzling pinnipeds (fin-footed mammals such as seals, sea lions and walruses).
Previously, the Upper Cowlitz Basin’s tranquility had remained mostly untouched by seals and sea lions. There are 43 river miles between the Pacific Ocean and the opening of the mouth of the Columbia River near Westport, Oregon, and an additional 70 river miles between the mouth and Salkum’s Barrier Dam on the Cowlitz River.
But climate change or any other already-established threats to the balance between people of the Pacific Northwest, Chinook salmon and the killer whales relying on the fish mean nothing to the two sea lions gorging on hatchery releases at the Barrier Dam in Lewis County on Monday.
According to Monika Sundbaum, a spokesperson for Tacoma Public Utilities, which owns the Cowlitz River dams in Lewis County and the salmon hatchery at the Barrier Dam, staff were releasing Chinook and coho into the Cowlitz on Monday.
Sundbaum confirmed on Wednesday that both sea lions and seals have been spotted at the facility.
Billy Ledig Jr., of Onalaska, was near Blue Creek, catching steelhead on Monday. As he’s retired, fishing is his main hobby, he said. Most days, he’ll catch one or two fish.
Over years of fishing, Ledig has seen his fair share of otters and other fish predators. But he’d “never, never” seen a sea lion that far up the Cowlitz. On Monday, he saw two.
“I called the game department,” Ledig said. “They said, ‘That’s not our department.’ And I said, ‘What is your department?’”
At the time, Ledig said of the sea lions, “I seen ‘em take a bite right out of the center of it and just toss it. Salmon. Spring Chinook are just at the top of the river and I’m positive they just followed the run right on up here.”
Sundbaum told The Chronicle pinnipeds “management” falls under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“We value our partnership with NOAA and proactively reached out to let them know about the pinnipeds. This isn't the first time we've seen pinnipeds at our facilities, but the sightings do not happen very often,” Sundbaum said. “We haven't seen one for years.”
Historically, NOAA’s “management” of the creatures has meant conservation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which it reports has helped grow the California sea lion population steadily since 1975. Ledig referred to this growth in both seal and sea lion populations as “an overabundance.”
In the Columbia Basin alone, the population has increased from fewer than 500 to more than 4,000 animals in the last decade, NOAA reports. At the same time, salmon in the basin have become increasingly endangered.
In 2020, the agency allowed tribes and states to exterminate the creatures, with some caveats.
That change was one of a few pieces of sea lion legislation sponsored by former U.S. Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, and Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon. In a tale previously cited by Herrera Beutler and by Ledig this week, when they started becoming a problem on the Columbia, agencies tried bringing the sea lions back to California.
But, as Ledig put it, “They were already here when they got back.”
His statement might be hyperbolic, but it’s true the sea lions came back. For those familiar with the taste of spring Chinook, it’s not hard to imagine why.
“This year seems to be an unusual year in terms of sea lions,” said NOAA spokesperson Michael Milstein, later adding, “Spring chinook below Bonneville (Dam) have been somewhat late, so they may be looking for other options. The state and tribes have the authority to remove sea lions. We don’t have the capacity to trap them.”
While they aren’t required to, Sundbaum said Tacoma Public Utilities did notify the regional staff with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife of this week’s Cowlitz River seal and sea lion sightings.
Washington’s 3rd District U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez was contacted for this story and her office was issuing a statement on possible sea lion action when The Chronicle reached its press deadline on Wednesday. Follow-up can be found at chronline.com or in Saturday’s paper.