The Sea Lion and the Dam “Power”ful Alliance of His Enemies

If “politics makes strange bedfellows,” when politics turns into finding a scapegoat, and then waging a war against that scapegoat, the alliance is even stranger.  But not necessarily stronger.

The scapegoat of the Columbia River is the sea lion, but to understand why any interests need a scapegoat, one must understand the “target” that is intended to be protected by this scapegoating.  That target is the salmon that find their way up the miles and miles of the Columbia River to their mating and spawning grounds.

The numbers of salmon in a natural system. Excerpt from presentation by Dr. Mandy Cook, Adjunct Professor, Portland State University

Numbers of salmon in a natural system and numbers killed by humans. Excerpt, presentation by Dr. Mandy Cook, Adjunct Professor, Portland State University

As indicated in this presentation by Dr. Mandy Cook, the numbers of “salmon and steelhead” alone in the Columbia River system in 1850 – the natural river system – ranged from 11 million to 15 million individuals each year.

What this slide also shows is that the height of intentional predation, by fishing, of the Columbia River Chinook salmon, and likely other fish stocks, occurred in 1883, when almost 43 millions pounds of salmon were removed from that river system.  No system with that kind of intentional removal of a natural and necessary part can thereafter be considered “natural”.  But the system might have rebounded had the system been so allowed.

But the onslaught continued.  After that time, the numbers of salmon in the Columbia River experienced continued decline.  From a 1968 report by the Department of Interior*, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), contrast the 43 millions pounds taken in 1883:

Evidence of impending decline occurred as early as 1889, when only 8.2 million kg [18 million lbs] were taken.  Catches fluctuated between 7.7 and 16.8 million kg [17 and 37 million lbs] in 1890-1920, and gradually declined between 1921-66.  The average annual catch during 1962-66 was about 2.3 million kg [5 million lbs].

But nowhere in that 1968 report are sea lions even mentioned as playing even a bit part in the drama of the decline of salmon.  This report makes it clear that human overfishing, not sea lion predation, had decimated the salmon population,  even prior to the other stressors on the numbers of salmon in the Columbia River.  But what else has turned the Columbia River system into an unnatural one, one in which the salmon are struggling to maintain their ability to spawn and survive?

A list of threats to salmon in the Columbia River. Excerpt, presentation by Dr. Mandy Cook.

A list of threats to salmon in the Columbia River. Excerpt, presentation by Dr. Mandy Cook

The 1968 USFWS paper noted that the first 60 years of the 20th Century resulted in the construction of those “river structures” and “flood control measures,” as-named in the figure by Dr. Cook.  Both the 1968 report and Dr. Cook’s presentation list the other stressors:

  • irrigation
  • logging
  • mining
  • dam construction

The 1968 report recognized that the construction of dams, if left unchecked, would sound the death-knell for salmon in the Columbia River.  The report notes that measures had been taken to provide salmon with “ladders” around or over the dams to assist in their recovery.  The USFWS noted, however, that although these measures were locally effective, the “[r]esolution of the problems of safely passing migrating salmonids  – particularly of young downstream migrants – has not kept pace with dam  construction in the Columbia River drainage.”

While efforts to restore the Columbia River have continued after 1968, it is clear that in 2013 as 1968, the efforts to address the multiple stressors are not keeping pace with the damage that they inflict on the salmon population.

Salmon threats presentations crop8

The enemies of salmon life are truly not that many.  But “power”ful, they are.

Instead of forming an alliance to scapegoat the sea lion, the following need to develop a plan to do their part to allow the system to recover and the salmon to find their home once again in a natural system.  Everyone can find themselves in this alliance:

  • commercial fishermen – Stop conducting fishing that is unsustainable under TODAY’s threats, and fish consistent with the purpose of treaties.  Reduce your take levels. End farming of fish on salmon runs.  Stop introducing farmed salmon into the wild population.
  • fish consumers – Stop eating salmon.  Period. Wild. Farmed. Canned. Whole. Smoked.  Step up.
  • farming interests – Anywhere you extract water, ensure that there is an effective fish ladder around the dam impacted by your river span that benefits and makes possible your income.
  • power companies – Anywhere you generate power, erect effective fish ladders, or deconstruct the dam.
  • energy consumers – Take reasonable steps to reduce your energy consumption.
  • manufacturing – Clean up the pollution in the Columbia River.  Ensure that the permit for your water discharge is protective of salmon; heck, go a bit further than the standards required by law, because those standards don’t take into account lots of unregulated substances, like, pharmaceuticals, for instance, that threaten wildlife in ways that we do not yet know.
  • consumers – Find out who has manufacturing plants on the Columbia River and insist that they participate in cleaning it up, or refuse to purchase their products.
  • development – Good grief, please follow the law and ensure that sediment entry into the Columbia River is minimized to the maximum extent possible.  This one is not rocket science.
  • all citizens everywhere
    • Call your Member of Congress right now and urge him or her not to sign or co-sponsor Doc Hastings’ (R-WA) repeated attack on the scapegoated sea lions in his newly proposed H.R. 1308.
    • Call Governor Kitzhaber and Governor Inslee and tell them you oppose the arbitrary action to scapegoat the sea lions.  Contact information is on the Sea Shepherd Dam Guardian web page.
    • Support the Sea Shepherd Dam Guardian campaign.
    • Rock the Dam Tweet to spread the word to the Twitterverse about this cruel, inhumane, and arbitrary action to punish the sea lion for the actions of humans!

The bottom line is that we cannot continue to treat the Columbia River and its natural inhabitants as if they are expendable expedients for our unsustainable consumption or as if they are the enemies of sustainable salmon populations.  The sea lions are neither of these.

And I’ll close with the observation that no 150-year-old treaty was designed to protect the “right” to send salmon, packed in ice, to restaurants or to stores around the country.

The salmon are our brothers, my brothers, and we know that diners in restaurants who consume our brothers do not see the brother.  They see pink flesh that could as easily be mine or yours with the right seasoning.  Stop fishing to feed those who care not for our brothers.

Join an alliance of friends of the sea lion and begin taking actions, every day, to end the strength of the Alliance of his Enemies.

Our brother, the sea lion

Our brother, the sea lion

* I noticed on April 22, 2014, that the link at the NOAA website was no longer available.  The report that I cited, Spawning Areas and Abundance of Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) in the Columbia River Basin — Past and Present, USFWS Special Scientific Report, Fisheries No. 571, 1968, is also available HERE.

3 responses to “The Sea Lion and the Dam “Power”ful Alliance of His Enemies

  1. Thanks for this very important news.

  2. Most important , perhaps, the Columbia is a snow-charged river that seasonally fluctuates in volume. Its annual average discharge is 160 million acre-feet of water, with the highest volumes between April and September, the lowest from December to February. From its source at 2,650 feet above sea level, the river drops an average of more than 2 feet per mile, but in some sections it falls nearly 5 feet per mile.

  3. Heather Wesling

    Great information. Once again this is about humans being destructive to the eco system. This needs to stop. Leave the sea lions in peace.

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