For the next three months, it will be someone's job to light fireworks and drive a boat around to scatter sea lions below Willamette Falls – five days a week from dawn til dusk (almost one of my top five fish and wildlife jobs ... but not quite). The second annual hazing of sea lions to protect Endangered Species Act listed salmon and steelhead on the Willamette begins this week.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has been hazing sea lions below the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam for much longer than that – also using rubber bullets and water sprinklers. Up there, officials have captured and killed some of the the sea lions that didn't respond to hazing (others named "Biff" and "Otis" have been adopted and trained to do tricks at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium).
Sea lions are now swimming up the Willamette River too – traveling farther than they ever have historically. Fish ladders designed to help salmon and steelhead get past dams turn into a virtual fish buffet for sea lions. Officials charged with protecting threatened wild salmon and steelhead stocks want to keep the 800-pound predators away from the buffet on the Willamette without harming or killing them. Hence, the hazing. It's a pilot program in its second year.
"Now in the second year of a pilot program to see whether sea lion hazing can be effective in moving these animals away from Willamette Falls and potentially reduce fish mortality, the program will take place five days a week between dawn and dusk from Feb. 1 through April 30. The hazing effort will be restricted to the Willamette River between Willamette Falls and the I-205 Bridge about a mile downstream.
A small crew of ODFW employees will deploy hazing fireworks from the Willamette Falls fish ladder and a boat to move California sea lions away from the falls where salmon and steelhead congregate before entering fish ladders. No hazing will occur downstream of the I-205 Bridge, and sea lions will not be killed or harmed.
“Our purpose is not to harm the sea lions or move them off the river entirely, our intent is to move these animals away from ESA-listed fish that are congregating at the fish ladders waiting to swim upstream,” said Tom Murtagh, ODFW fish biologist in charge of the project.
The hazing operation is being conducted under the authority and consistent with policies set in the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Additionally, predation of listed salmon and steelhead by California sea lions below Willamette Falls has been identified as a concern in the Draft Upper Willamette River Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Plan"