Gulls join sea lions, seals, & cormorants in the crosshairs
VICTORIA, British Columbia; PORTLAND, Oregon––Blaming seals and sea lions for declining salmon stocks, Pacific Balance Pinniped Society founder Thomas Sewid is frustrated these days because, Sewid posted to Facebook on January 23, 2019, “My firearm possession and acquisition license is expired. I cannot hunt seals for toxicity tests [required to try to sell seal meat] until [my] new card comes in 50 days!”
Sewid asked “all First Nations in Salish Sea region (Gulf Of Georgia)” to “harvest with proper food fish license a seal or more and get us some meat, blubber, heart and liver samples.”
Sewid is unlikely to succeed in starting an economically successful west coast seal and sea lion hunt, in view that the long established Atlantic Canada seal hunt sold less than $1 million worth of seal products in 2017, down from $18 million worth in 2006.
“Saving orcas” is current excuse
But there can be no doubt that the 3,000-odd members of the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society, mostly current and former commercial fishers scattered from Alaska to California but centered around Victoria, British Columbia, would like to kill seals and sea lions under any possible pretext.
Protecting salmon runs to help the starving Salish Sea resident orcas, J, K, and L pods, is among the oft-claimed Pacific Balance Pinniped Society motives.
But fishers in the same region blamed and persecuted orcas for allegedly eating too many salmon for most of the 20th century.
But fishers reject leaving herring to the orcas
And, practically to a man, almost any of the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society constituency who had anything to say about it lauded Canadian federal fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson for rejecting a January 31, 2019 appeal from Courtenay-Alberni New Democrat member of Parliament Gord Johns to close commercial herring fishing in the Georgia Strait.
The Georgia Strait is the last area along the west coast of Canada where herring are commercially caught.
“If a moratorium is not enforced to protect this critical food source [herring] and to allow the stocks to rebuild, we’re endangering this interdependent species [orcas],” Johns told Parliament.
Herring may already be overfished
About 200 boats are expected to pursue a 2019 herring quota of about 28,000 tons during late February and March. This is believed to be about 20% of the Georgia Strait herring stock.
But Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans regional pelagics coordinator Brenda Spence told NanaimoNewsNOW that the annual DFO herring quotas are rarely caught––a hint that the quotas may be consistently set above the sustainable catch level, as was also the case for decades with Atlantic Canada cod stocks, until the cod population crashed in 1992.
Oregon kills sea lions
Meanwhile, 500 miles south of Victoria, at Willamette Falls, Oregon, state Department of Fish & Wildlife personnel in mid-January 2019 began killing a National Marine Fisheries Service-set quota of 93 California sea lions to reduce predation on steelhead and salmon along the lower Willamette River, the largest tributary to the Columbia River.
“Last winter, a record-low 512 wild winter steelhead completed the journey past the Willamette Falls, according to state counts,” reported Gillian Flaccus of Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Less than 30 years ago, that number was more than 15,000. The sea lions are eating so many winter steelhead at Willamette Falls that certain runs are at a high risk of going extinct, according to a 2017 study by wildlife biologists.
“In a similar program,” Flaccus mentioned, “Oregon and Washington have already killed more than 150 sea lions below the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River to protect threatened and endangered salmon.”
Nearly five times more sea lions could be killed under new law
Legislation passed in the December 2018 closing days of the 115th U.S. Congress allow the National Marine Fisheries Service to issue permits allowing fisheries managers to kill as many as 920 California sea lions per year, but only the Willamette Falls and Bonneville Dam killings are currently authorized.
Jaime Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia RiverInter-Tribal Fish Commission, in 2018 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.
Sea lions are up, but nowhere near pre-settlement numbers
California sea lions are easily scapegoated, having increased from about 89,000 along the entire west coast to just under 258,000 since 1975, according to National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration data. But this is still just a fraction of the estimated numbers of California sea lions who lived along the west coast in pre-settlement times, along with many more orcas and other salmon and steelhead predators.
Killing sea lions has so far not brought salmon and steelhead back. Neither have decades of sporadically killing other species in the name of salmon and steelhead conservation, and of tightening fishing catch limits and restricting logging practices to protect spawning streams.
Shoreline restoration projects meant to help “feeder fish” have not accomplished much, either.
Damning the dams
Conservationists conventionally heap the most blame on the many dams blocking the Columbia, the Willamette, and other spawning rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has refused to do what’s necessary to modify those dams to protect salmon, and that is why salmon are continuing to decline. Killing wildlife is not going to change that situation,” explains Portland Audubon Society conservation director Bob Sallinger.
The Elwha Dam, built on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in 1911, was removed altogether in 2012. The dam removal has revitalized the lower Elwha habitat, bringing back some local salmon runs, but even repeating the Elwha success a hundred times over––which could not be done even in theory, because there are not that many dams to begin with––could probably not restore salmon and steelhead to historical abundance.
Global warming has changed the habitat
In plain and simple terms, global warming has already transformed the Pacific Northwest climate and habitat, changing the balance of species that find hospitable conditions in the offshore waters, Puget Sound, and the rest of the Salish Sea, extending north through the Georgia Strait.
Conserving rare and endangered species, for example the highly endangered “southern resident” orcas, perhaps can be accomplished with adequate protection measures, but restoring the salmon and steelhead abundance that Sewid and other older members of the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society remember is no more likely than a comeback by Atlantic cod, no matter how many seals and sea lions are killed, no matter where.
Warmer water multiplied by oceanic acidification
Indeed, an Arctic Monitoring & Assessment Program team led by Norwegian fisheries scientist Martina Stiasny reported in January 2019 that the North Atlantic cod stock in the Barents Sea “is likely to first rise,” due to some beneficial effects of modest oceanic warming, “and then crash, possibly to almost zero before the end of the century if climate change isn’t addressed,” summarized Guardian global environment editor Jonathan Watts.
“The grim forecast,” Watts wrote, “is based on the most comprehensive study to date of the effects of climate change on cod, which – for the first time – takes into account ocean acidification as well as warming. It found larvae mortality rates were 75% higher when exposed to the combined pressures of the two factors – both of which are caused by emissions [from fossil fuels] – than to heating alone. As a result, fish numbers, catches and revenues will decline faster than previously estimated.”
Cod findings may apply to salmon too
The Barents Sea projection can be extrapolated, with some adjustments, to Atlantic Canada cod stocks, and probably to other fish found at comparable latitudes, including salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest.
Meanwhile, frustrated fishers and fisheries biologists continue to blame predation for the failures of fish stocks to recover, nowhere more determinedly than along the Columbia River and tributaries, where catastrophic declines of salmon and steelhead were causing canneries to close even before most of the dams interfering with spawning runs were built.
20th century recovery formula no longer applies
Neither dams that were not built yet, nor predation by harbor seals and California sea lions at a time when both species had been hunted to historic lows had anything to do with the salmon and steelhead crashes of the early 20th century.
Aggressive gill netting was one major factor; farming, logging and mining using methods that choked spawning streams with silt were another.
Instituting catch limits, restricting fishing methods, and stream conservation and restoration brought salmon and steelhead back, more or less, for several decades, but by the late 1970s the effects of habitat change were already evident in retrospect, even if not recognized even by most scientists until more than 20 years later.
With killing sea lions increasingly obviously ineffective, fish-eating birds have come under fire. Currently gulls are in the crosshairs.
“Just in the [152-mile] section [of the Columbia from the McNary Dam to the Bonneville Dam, nearly 20% of the fish taken were taken by gulls,” alleged Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission avian predation coordinator Blaine Parker to Courtney Flatt of Northwest Public Broadcasting on January 25, 2019.
Dams are officially blamed for killing about 28% of migrating salmon smolts.
“The area Parker is concerned about, Miller Island, has up to 6,000 gulls nesting on it during spring salmon runs,” Flatt explained. “Gulls also steal fish from other birds, like Caspian terns, Parker said. That doubles the amount of salmon eaten because the victim bird must then replace its catch.”
Gulls already culled at five dams
Parker acknowledged that gulls, as nest predators, also control the Caspian tern population.
But, Parker concluded, “There’s tens of thousands of gulls within the Columbia River Basin. There should be some deference given to fish and not to birds.”
“Back in 2014,” Flatt recalled, “the federal government was authorized to take [kill] ring-billed gulls, California gulls and double-crested cormorants at five dams farther up the Columbia River. It was the first time in 20 years dam managers said they had to kill ‘nuisance birds.’ That program is still in place at five dams, McNary on the Columbia River and Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite on the Snake River.”
The demand to escalate killing gulls, said Sallinger, “is a continuation of a very unfortunate pattern of killing wildlife to protect other wildlife––pure scapegoating.”
Gulls are now the targets of convenience because several years of persecuting double-crested cormorants, said to have been killing 4.6% of salmon smolts, accomplished nothing visible toward helping either salmon or steelhead.
“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,” recalled Sallinger.
Since 2014, however, “Federal agents have shot more than 5,000 cormorants out of the sky and destroyed more than 6,000 active cormorant nests,” Sallinger continues. “The relentless killing has put the colony on the brink of collapse, especially after “more than 16,000 cormorants abandoned their active nests in a single day” in 2016 to avoid the shooting.
“In 2017, only a few hundred cormorants returned to East Sand Island,” Salinger said.
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.