Port of Astoria Commissioner Bill Hunsinger marshaled his fellow commercial fishermen Tuesday to talk about what the agency can do to stop sea lions from ruining fishing on the Columbia River.
Hunsinger added the Sea Lion Committee to he Port Commission agenda for the meeting Tuesday, which was packed to the gills with commercial and guide fishermen who largely feel the river’s endangered salmon runs, and by extension their livelihoods, are threatened by pinnipeds. In the front row was a small contingent from the Sea Lion Defense Brigade, a group formed several years ago to monitor hazing and other violence against sea lions in Astoria and at the Bonneville Dam, where they feed at the fish ladders.
Over the last few years, the Port has become a focal point for the increasing numbers of mostly California sea lion males migrating into the Columbia to feed on fish runs, while their traditional food network along the California coastline collapses under warm El Niño conditions. Encapsulating the migration into the Columbia River was a single-day count in March by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife of more than 2,300 sea lions lounging in the Port’s East End Mooring Basin.
Let’s be first
Hunsinger started the sea lion discussion in front of an expansive whiteboard where he wrote notes and drew graphs detailing sea lion population growth, predation and the animals’ effects on commercial fisheries and the Port.
Oregon and Washington state biologists have no clue what to do about sea lions or how many more will come this year, he said. “They don’t know what’s coming next. They know it’s going to be bigger.”
Port staff claim more than $100,000 in maintenance costs because of sea lion damage at the east basin, which remains largely empty of boats, except for two piers running along a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers breakwater lined with larger vessels. Meanwhile, the Port’s West End Mooring Basin has a waiting list of more than 100 boaters trying to get a slip.
Hunsinger said Astoria has lost many of its commercial fishermen to nearby ports in Warrenton and Ilwaco, Washington.
“Are we going to let predators destroy our commercial fishery?” he asked, renewing his calls for the Port to take some sort of action against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA, through the National Marine Fisheries Service, oversees the protection of sea lions under the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972, passed when the sea lion population dwindled to fewer than 10,000. Current estimates have the California sea lion population at more than 300,000, with no established limit on their protected status.
“Somebody has to be first,” Hunsinger said, adding the federal government is protecting animals to the detriment of the local community. “Why can’t it be us?”
Love ’em or hate ’em
A full range of emotions regarding sea lions was on display during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting. Fishermen lamented over the revenue they have lost from sea lions in the river ripping through their nets at taking their catch.
“We have a species overpopulating,” guide fisherman Jody Mather said. “All you have to do is manage the population. Get the numbers down. Kill them.”
After Mather’s comment came Veronica Montoya of the Sea Lion Defense Brigade, who said she wants to make sure the group has representation on any sea lion committee.
“Hunsinger has a personal vendetta against the animals,” she said, adding he is beholden as an elected public servant not just to fishermen, but to the tourists who come to see the animals.
Tensions rose while Montoya spoke about keeping watch over the east basin from her house. Mather made a vague threat from the back of the room, telling Montoya to get a life and adding that he had taken down her address and those of other sea lion supporter as they introduced themselves for public comment. Mather was then quieted by Port Commission Chairman Robert Mushen.
“Suing the federal government is a huge, costly endeavor,” said Jim Wells, president of commercial fishing advocacy group Salmon for All, cautioning the Port. “We sued the state (of Oregon) and didn’t get much out of it.”
Take a breath
Executive Director Jim Knight, silent through Hunsinger’s presentation and public comment about sea lions, said there seems to be two separate issues: protecting the Port’s property against damage by sea lions, and what the Port’s role should be in forming a permanent solution regarding sea lions in the Columbia River.
“Give me a little bit of time to check with our attorney on what we can do,” Knight said, adding staff can look at how to get grant money to install barriers for sea lions on the Port’s property.
Port Commissioner James Campbell said the Port will need the help of its top political representation. Commissioner John Raichl added that the Port should have only a support role regarding sea lion predation on fish.
Last year, the Port staged creative — if sometimes comical — potential deterrents to sea lions at the East End Mooring Basin, including beach balls and a fake orca that capsized.
Butch Smith, a Port of Ilwaco commissioner invited by Hunsinger to Astoria to talk about sea lions, said his port has been heralded by NOAA for its control of sea lions.
Smith said Ilwaco joined a hazing program sponsored by NOAA, in which certain people are licensed to shoot sea lions with rubber bullets, hit them with a pole or use other nonlethal, nonpenetrative measures to keep them off docks. He said much of the effort around preventing sea lions is in not allowing anglers, commercial fishermen and processors to drop fish parts in the marina.
“If the same thing that happened to the east end basin (in Astoria) happened in Ilwaco, we would go broke,” Smith said.