Newly formed Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society gives voice to anger
VANCOUVER, B.C.; PORTLAND, Oregon––Removing a longtime irritant to the British Columbia wild salmon fishing industry––and a major economic competitor––the British Columbia government and First Nations have agreed to phase out 17 commercial salmon farms operated since 1987 by a company called Marine Harvest off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
The deal is billed as a step toward restoring wild salmon runs, but might also fuel a rising hue-and-cry from frustrated fishers that they should be allowed to massacre California sea lions and harbor seals.
(Beth Clifton collage)
Sea lions & seals up, salmon down
Protected by law, after having become endangered in the 20th century, both California sea lions and harbor seals have markedly increased in numbers even as commercial fishing catches have declined and have been more stringently limited to try to help fish stocks recover.
Salmon fishers have long alleged that diseases and pollution spreading from the salmon farms have contributed to the decline of wild salmon, especially chinook.
With the salmon farms gone, sea lions and seals will be the most visible targets of blame for fish losses other than overfishing by fishers themselves, amid political reluctance to recognize that predation has little or nothing to do with why salmon are no longer abundant.
A fundamental law of wildlife ecology is that the volume of accessible prey regulates the numbers of predators, not the other way around. When prey is scarce, predators starve, fail to breed successfully, and die out long before the prey species disappear––which enables the prey species to recover to whatever extent the habitat permits.
Far greater but less easily seen habitat factors suppressing salmon recovery include the failures of dammed and polluted spawning streams to produce as many millions of salmon smolts as they once did, and the effects of global warming, which have markedly changed the distribution of marine species and composition of the wild food web throughout the Puget Sound and northern Pacific Coast regions.
Hypocrisy in black & white
Fishing industry ire in recent years is often expressed as concern for the survival of the highly endangered Puget Sound resident orca whales.
Feeding almost entirely on chinook salmon, the three resident Puget Sound orca pods have fallen to just 74 members among them, with no surviving young born since 2015.
But orcas were also blamed––and lethally targeted––for competing with fishers until under 60 years ago.
Orcas before the mid-1960s were killed by fishers not only with impunity but with government encouragement, and at times active participation, both in B.C. and U.S. waters.
The soon-to-be-closed fish farms “are located in the Broughton Archipelago at the entrance to Johnstone Strait, a major migration route for coastal and Fraser River salmon,” explained Seattle Post-Intelligencer environment reporter Joel Connelly. “They are not far from Robson Bight, a major gathering point for the northern resident orca whale population.”
Responding to the great escape
Political pressure to close the British Columbia salmon farms intensified in August 2017, after as many as 162,000 captive-bred Atlantic salmon escaped from a sea pen belonging to Cooke Aquaculture, off Cypress Island in U.S. waters, between the city of Everett and the San Juan Islands.
Some of the salmon turned up as far north as the Harrison River in British Columbia, as far east as the upper reaches of the Skagit River in Washington, and as far south as the Pacific shores of the Olympic Peninsula.
Washington Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz eventually terminated Cooke Aquaculture leases not only for the Cypress Island facility, but also for a second aging sea pen complex at Ediz Hook, near Port Angeles.
Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society
Meanwhile an organization of frustrated fishers called the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society formed in July 2018.
Formally incorporated in British Columbia on October 27, the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society now boasts more than 3,000 members, scattered along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California but concentrated in B.C., who clamor to kill sea lions and seals under the leadership of Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation commercial fisher Tom Sewid and Haida Gwaii elder Roy Jones.
Sea lion poachers recast as heroes
Heroes to at least some Pacific Balance Pinniped Society include Alaskan fishing boat captain Jon Nichols, 31, and crew member Teddy Turgeon, 21, who in June 2018 pleaded guilty to killing 15 Stellar sea lions in the Copper River Fishing District just before the 2015 salmon season opened.
Nichols in November 2018 was sentenced to serve five years on probation, three months of home incarceration, 400 hours of community service, and a $20,000 fine for multiple violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Turgeon received four years on probation, one month of home incarceration, and a $5,000 fine, and is to perform 40 hours of community service.
Similar offenses have also occurred recently in Puget Sound, where the Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network has logged the discovery of 13 California sea lions believed to have been killed by humans since September 2018––six of them shot, seven dead from other “acute trauma suspected from human interactions.”
Remembered “balance” never existed
The very name of the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society evokes the obsolescent concept of restoring a “balance of nature” that has never existed.
Driving the growth of the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society is the fervent but misguided belief of the founders that the transient abundance of salmon they remember from their distant youths, and/or heard about from tribal elders, represented conditions that could be restored, if only the numbers of sea lions and seals could be slaughtered down to the scarcity of those times.
Indeed, salmon were much more easily caught in great numbers then, and salmon predators including seals and sea lions had not yet even begun to recover from the intensive sealing of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
More fishers now than residents then
But the human population of British Columbia circa 60 years ago was only about 1.5 million, a third of what it is today, with proportionately less shoreline and estuarial development, logging along salmon streams, pollution of waterways, and recreational fishing.
The vast numbers of salmon remembered in First Nations mythology from pre-European settlement times were there in part not only because the salmon habitat remained relatively undisturbed, but also because the entire human population of British Columbia before the 20th century probably never exceeded 200,000––whereas, British Columbia today has more than 300,000 licensed recreational fishers.
At that, the Native American population of British Columbia was so severely depleted by smallpox outbreaks in 1810 and 1862, brought by some of the first European visitors, that settlers arriving afterward found few survivors among largely abandoned villages.
Using First Nations rights to kill sea lions
Farther south, salmon had already been fished to depletion along the Columbia River and tributaries by 1900, leading to cannery closures and the first regional salmon conservation laws––and that was when sea lions and seals had already been hunted to commercial extinction.
Some sea lions and seals survived, but not enough to support a continued pinniped hunting industry.
“In early November,” Greg Rasmussen of CBC News reported on December 1, 2018, “the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society started using First Nations hunting rights as part of a plan to harvest 30 seals. The society plans to test the meat and blubber to see if it’s fit for human consumption and other uses.”
Hopes to revive sealing industry
Enthused Pacific Balance Pinniped Society cofounder Tom Sewid, disregarding the collapse of the Atlantic Canada seal hunt, “We can look at starting a new industry.”
Like many Newfoundland fishers and sealers, Sewid believes the market for Atlantic Canadian sealing products will recover, but there is little hint of demand.
Total sales of Canadian seal products worldwide fell from $18 million in 2006 to less than $1 million in 2017.
India in 2018 became the 35th nation to ban imports of commercially hunted seal products, following the 28 European Union nations, the U.S., Switzerland, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Mexico.
China has not banned imports of seal products, but has not bought any in recent years, either.
80,000 harbor seals
Continued Rasmussen of CBC, “According to one study, the harbor seal population in the Salish Sea [Puget Sound plus the Georgia Straits of British Columbia] is estimated at 80,000 today, up from 8,600 in 1975. The study also says seals and sea lions now eat six times as many chinook salmon as are caught in the region’s commercial and sports fisheries combined.”
That infuriates the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society, but as Coastal Ocean Research Institute, Ocean Wise, and Vancouver Aquarium scientist Peter Ross responded, “I don’t know if there’s any good predator control study that’s ever demonstrated that killing off a predator has led to more prey.”
Ross also pointed out that the pinniped-eating transient orca population, recovering in recent years, might be jeopardized if the numbers of sea lions and seals were reduced.
West Coast groundfish “recovered”
The irrelevance of pinniped numbers to fish numbers was illustrated in mid-December 2018 when the National Oceanic & Atmospheric administration authorized markedly higher catch limits for West Coast groundfish species, with the California sea lion and harbor seal populations almost as large as they have ever been since the Marine Mammal Protection Act cleared Congress in 1972.
Groundfish, including rockfish, sole, flounder, sablefish, Pacific perch, and boccacio, “were once so depleted by overfishing that commercial harvests were virtually halted 20 years ago,” recalled Steve Gorman of Reuters. Their “surprisingly swift recovery,” Gorman wrote, citing NOAA spokespersons, “is testament to the success of drastic fishing restrictions imposed in 2000.”
U.S. sea lion culling regs weakened
More attentive to the volatile politics of the matter, however, than to the science, the last session of the 115th Congress amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act to expedite the process through which the Washington, Idaho, and Oregon wildlife agencies and tribes belonging to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission are allowed to capture and kill California sea lions.
Jaime Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia RiverInter-Tribal Fish Commission, told media that as many as 190 sea lions killed more than 9,500 adult spring chinook within sight of Bonneville Dam in 2016, a 5.8 percent loss of the 2016 spring chinook spawning run.
Earlier, federal officials projected that sea lions might have eaten 45% of the 2014 spring chinook run in the 145 river miles between the Columbia River estuary and Bonneville Dam, the first of a series of major hydroelectric dams that obstruct spawning salmon on the Columbia and tributaries.
Cormorants also blamed
But double-crested cormorants are also blamed for essentially the same estimated losses, and have also been aggressively culled, at politically mobilized fisher demand, to no evident effect in boosting salmon numbers.
“East Sand Island,” at the mouth of the Columbia River, “was once home to the world’s largest colony of double-crested cormorants, representing more than 40% of the entire population in the western United States,” recounted Portland Audubon Society director of conservation Bob Salinger in April 2018.
“However, over the past four years the Army Corps of Engineers, acting under permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has waged a relentless war on this colony in a misguided and inhumane effort to protect endangered salmon and steelhead,” Salinger fumed.
Cormorant colony “on brink of collapse”
“Federal agents have shot more than 5,000 cormorants out of the sky and destroyed more than 6,000 active cormorant nests. The relentless killing has put the colony on the brink of collapse. In 2016,” Salinger reminded, “more than 16,000 cormorants abandoned their active nests in a single day. In 2017, only a few hundred cormorants returned to East Sand Island.
“By causing thousands of the birds to move farther up the Columbia River,” Salinger added, “the agencies increased the risk to endangered fish, as federal agency models show displaced cormorants would eat far more salmon than if they have been left at East Sand Island.”
About 6,500 cormorants nested at East Sand Island in 2018. Those who remained within a 1.3-acre fenced area designated by USDA Wildlife Services were left undisturbed, but others were hazed off of their nests and their eggs were destroyed.