Sea lions get a rude awakening as hazing begins

OREGON CITY, Ore. - Sea lions hoping to feast on some salmon below Willamette Falls are getting a loud reminder that they are not wanted.

On Monday, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) began a three-month hazing project to try to get California sea lions out of the area so winter steelhead and spring chinook have a fighting chance of surviving.

This is the third year of the project, although last year it was suspended due to lack of funding.

For the next three months (seven days a week) ODFW crews will head out on the Willamette River between Willamette Falls and the Interstate 205 bridge to try to scare off the sea lions.

They will be using two methods - one that makes a loud noise above the water and another that sets off an explosion under water.

"One is a cracker shell," said ODFW spokesman Rick Swart. "It's a projectile that comes out of the end of a 12-gauge shotgun and blows up in mid-air like a firework. It makes a loud noise. The other is what we refer to as a 'seal bomb.' It's like the M80s that we used as kids as firecrackers. They're waterproof pyrotechnics that you light with a torch and toss in the water. It sinks a foot or two and then goes off."

Those who live, work or drive nearby will hear loud booms for the next three months. In the past, it's been an annoyance for some folks.

"Pets get excited and some people found it a little disruptive," said Swart. "We're sensitive to that. That's why the scope of the project is limited to just that area between the falls and the 205 bridge. It's kind of an industrialized area anyway."

"But there's no escaping the fact that we're out there making loud noises," he added. "We try to keep that to a minimum but it's going to happen."

As far as whether all of this is effective, Swart said it's too early to tell.

"That's what we're trying to find out," he said. "We think it's probably helping out somewhat. We're not moving them off the river or out of the Willamette and into the Columbia so they are probably still getting fish. But the idea is to get them away from the ladders where the fish congregate before going upstream to give them a fair chance at making it across the falls."

Q&A on the Program from ODFW

Why is ODFW hazing sea lions?

ODFW is hazing California sea lions near the Willamette Falls fish ladders to protect two listed stocks of native fish - upper Willamette River spring chinook salmon and winter steelhead. Both are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

When and where will ODFW's hazing activities take place?

Hazing will take place during daylight hours, seven days a week from Feb. 4 through April 30, 2013. The work will occur from Willamette Falls downstream one mile to the I-205 bridge. This timing coincides with the peak of the spring salmon and winter steelhead migration into the upper Willamette River.

What will hazing activities look like? What can people in nearby communities expect?

ODFW hazing crews will move sea lions downstream away from the fish ladders by pursuing them in an aluminum boat. If necessary, crews will use special fireworks that will make a "bang" to get the sea lions moving.

Why not just kill the sea lions and remove that threat to listed fish altogether?

Sea lions are federally protected. Only under very specific circumstances and certain procedures can federal authorization be obtained to lethally remove sea lions.

Is ODFW planning to apply for lethal take of sea lions on the Willamette?

No. ODFW is testing non-lethal approaches to resolve this problem.

How many sea lions are there and how many salmon/steelhead do they eat?

Biologists estimate these animals may consume 4-7 salmon/steelhead a day. Last year, observers counted as many as 21 sea lions between Willamette Falls and the Abernathy/I-205 Bridge.

Is there any evidence ODFW's Willamette River sea lion hazing project works?

Past work has shown that the hazing project is effective at moving sea lions away from the fish ladders. However, it's too soon to say if predation will be sufficiently curtailed in this area due to our efforts.

Where does the money come from for sea lion hazing on the Willamette?

The 2011 Oregon Legislature directed ODFW to carry out the sea lion hazing project at Willamette Falls through 2013. HB 3255 also authorized ODFW to spend funds generated by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses to complete the project. No tax dollars are used to fund this program.

How many employees are involved?

Seven temporary ODFW employees have been hired for the sea lion hazing project.

Does the sea lion hazing crew need special training?

Safety of the crew and the public is paramount. The area where the hazing takes place is also very dangerous. All crew members are trained in CPR, boating safety, and safe use of firearms and explosive acoustical devices.

Are these methods humane?

ODFW does not intend to harm sea lions and crew members are trained to ensure animals are not hurt.