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To Environmentalists, Seals ‘Recovering’; Fishermen See ‘Sea Monsters’

April 29, 1987

SEATTLE (AP) _ To the cheers of onlookers along the Seattle Ship Canal, a sea lion braves the muted underwater ″whump 3/8″ of a firecracker, chases down a steelhead trout and gorges himself before beating a hasty retreat.

On Oregon’s Rogue River, an angler plays a chinook salmon, then notices a bewhiskered face sticking out of the river. The head disappears underwater and the race is on. The fisherman reels as fast as he can, but the line goes limp and he reels in a salmon with its belly ripped out.

Similar scenes are being played in waters from Alaska to Mexico, as flippered sea lions, seals and otters - pinnipeds - protected under a 1972 law grow in numbers and get into more and more confrontations with man.

″There have been increasing interactions and we expect them to continue and get worse as the (animal) populations increase,″ said Robert DeLong, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle.

Some pinnipeds are declining in numbers, especially those in Alaska waters, but several species along the Pacific Coast are increasing at 5 percent a year, he said.

Along the coast from British Columbia to Mexico, a species called California sea lions number about 160,000, he said. There are perhaps 300,000 harbor seals along the coast, and about 100,000 elephant seals in California and Mexico waters. Harbor seals are also presenting problems with New England’s recovering Atlantic salmon fishery, he said.

″There’s a hell of a lot more of these sea monsters out there than there used to be,″ said Greg Peterson, executive director of the 350-member Puget Sound Gillnetters Association.

Environmentalists celebrate the recovery of the animals, which were hunted down with bounties on their heads as recently as 20 years ago. Snouts of harbor seals could earn a fisherman spare change.

″What we have to emphasize is that this is a recovery,″ said Alan Reichman of Greenpeace. ″Until 1972, there were various programs to eliminate such species from the marine ecosystem.″

That year, a Congress sympathizing with threatened whale species enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Though fishermen can kill marine mammals under some circumstances to protect their nets and catch, the law has proved to be strong protection.

The problems, DeLong said, usually involve a relatively few animals that have learned to take advantage of man’s fishing methods. They are opportunists, stealing a fish from a net or off a hook - or, in a celebrated confrontation, intercepting steelhead trout trying to migrate through Seattle’s ship locks to spawn.

″It’s just like a deli,″ DeLong said of the locks, where fisheries managers are trying to save a run of wild steelhead by scaring the sea lions with firecracker-like explosives detonated underwater.

The ″seal bombs″ are used elsewhere, too, to chase away harbor seals, the biggest headache for fishermen in Washington state.

Sometimes even that doesn’t help. Peterson said the stealthy seals are attracted by the sounds of boats, then wait for nets to be dropped. ″They know there’s fish around because you’re throwing seal bombs,″ he said.

Most sea lions and seals fish as Mother Nature intended and don’t clash with man, according to DeLong.

Ideally, he said, the Marine Mammal Act should allow wildlife managers more latitude in deciding interaction problems case-by-case. That could include killing some animals if necessary, he said.

The act is up for re-authorization by Congress in 1988, DeLong said, adding that the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to recommend management changes.

He said he feared that if individual cases couldn’t be resolved, it could result in public pressure eventually going against certain pinniped species, and even reinstitution of a bounty system.

″That’s not the solution,″ he said, adding that whole populations could suffer for the actions of a few odd-balls.

Also, he said, some pinniped populations that live in more northern waters, notably the stellar, or northern, sea lion and the northern fur seal, have been declining in numbers in recent years. The Guadalupe fur seal in California and Mexico has also declined, he said.

Too great a relaxation in protection laws, he said, could do even more harm to those populations. The reasons for the population declines have not been firmly established, he said, though some scientists say it may be from entanglement in cast-off nets, plastics and other marine debris.

But the recovery of some marine species has been so strong that fishermen up and down the coast now say they themselves are the ones needing protection.

″Ten years ago, no one ever talked about sea lions taking fish from nets,″ Peterson said. ″Now it’s a regular occurrence. ... They’re not very endangered anymore.″

Shootings of seals and sea lions are common along the coast.

Perhaps 50 animals, one-third of the harbor seals and sea lions found dead on the Oregon coast yearly, die of gunshot wounds, said Bruce Mate, an Oregon State University specialist in marine mammals.

Plans to move sea otters, which have rebuilt in strong numbers in central California, to San Nicolas Island north of Santa Catalina are opposed by commercial fishermen.

The sea otter, said Randy Brannock of the California Abalone Association, is an eating machine that munches abalone, crab, sea urchins, lobsters and clams in huge numbers, yet has public opinion on its side.

″People don’t see the devastation because it’s underwater,″ he said. ″All they see is an attractive, cuddly animal on top of the water.″

Marine mammals gobble 6 million pounds of fish a day in California waters, five times the take of commercial fishermen, according to the Santa Barbara- based Save Our Shellfish, which prepared the estimate using government- provided figures on animal numbers and feeding requirements.

Fisherman Mike Radon, with Save Our Shellfish, argued, ″Fisheries are managed. If we don’t have a management plan for marine mammals, it just doesn’t work.″

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