While I was back in my home town of Chicago for a few days last week, I did something I've been wanting to do for years: Visit the Columbia River sea lions now living at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.
In recent years, dozens of California sea lions have been congregating around the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam and eating protected salmon and steelhead. It's a sticky situation because a lot of time and money has gone into trying to rebuild depleted runs of those threatened and endangered fish, and the sea lions are literally eating away at that progress.
Dam operators and fishery managers have tried to scare off the sea lions with firecrackers and underwater "seal bombs." They've branded the sea lions feasting at the fish ladders to mark the troublemakers, and they've gotten permission to kill up to 92 of them a year.
About 50 sea lions have been removed from the river to protect salmon and steelhead since 2008, but some of them were spared from death. The Shedd Aquarium has adopted three of the sea lions that were slated to be killed. Eight other sea lions on death row were taken in by SeaWorld and three went to Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas.
They're lucky to be alive, but imagine how different their lives are now, with free food but a much smaller habitat, with trainers feeding them fish for good behavior and an audience gawking at them. In Chicago, more than two million people visit the Shedd Aquarium every year.
During my visit, I got to see Biff, who is branded with the code name C700 from his days on the Columbia River. He was floating in a pool of water surrounded by rocks when I got there and appeared to be hocking loogies at the crowd gathered behind the fence around the alcove.
The alcove has been built into an exhibit designed to look like the Pacific Northwest. There are fake conifers lining a mountainside that visitors walk down to get to the sea lions.
Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president of animal health at Shedd, said the Columbia River sea lions at the aquarium were flown to Chicago on a plane from the Northwest, and they haven't had trouble adapting to their new environment.
"Once they figure out that you're on their side and you're going to take care of them and give them fish, they seem to be excited about it," he said. "They start looking for what you want them to do next, and the training staff conditions them with simple behaviors."
The aquarium is perched on a pier that juts out into Lake Michigan with the Chicago skyline looming along the shore. Through a large bank of windows, the water inside part of the aquarium appears to be contiguous with the wide expanse of the lake beyond. But the water inside is manufactured saltwater – carefully tested to make sure it is just the right salinity for the animals, according to Van Bonn.
"We use a combination of artificial sea salts," he said. "Within the animal health department we have an environmental quality laboratory that monitors the water quality and makes sure it's equal to ocean sea water."
The sea lions are fed throughout the day on herring and capelin fish, squid and smelt, Van Bonn said. And even though they're not getting the Columbia River salmon they once got to eat, he said they're probably less stressed than they would be in the wild.
"We've removed a lot of stress from them," he said. "It's absolutely different than being out in the wild, but they don't have to worry about avoiding somebody shooting rubber bullets at them or shooting them with flares or chasing them around. They don't have to worry about the predators that are out there trying to make a meal out of them."
Right now, officials are ramping up sea lion hazing at Bonneville Dam and below Willamette Falls. The sea lion removal program is being challenged in court by the Humane Society. The animal rights group argues it's not the sea lions' fault that salmon and steelhead are endangered, and officials should be finding other ways to restore the fish runs that don't involve killing their natural predators.
But for now the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife departments still have the authorization to kill some sea lions. That is, unless they can find places like the Shedd Aquarium where the sea lions can be kept in captivity.