Sleeps With Fishes

Oregon might take out a hit on the Columbia River's sea lions.

By Ted Katauskas May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Troy Cummings

THIS MONTH, when a band of ravenous California sea lions returns to the waters beneath Bonneville Dam for the annual chinook salmon gorge-a-thon, they may find something besides fish awaiting them—like heavy artillery. Despite wildlife officers’ attempts last year to scare the pinnipeds back to Los Angeles with underwater noisemakers and rubber bullets, the gang of 70 or so sea lions, which are protected from harm by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, gobbled up 4 percent of our already abysmally low salmon runs. To stop the chinook carnage, the Departments of Fish and Wildlife in Oregon, Washington and Idaho now want to declare war on Zalophus californius—by invoking a provision in the act that allows rangers to kill them. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the act, said it would decide by late March whether or not to allow a marksman to pick off the most problematic critters, known by the brands tattooed on their backs. But they’re a wily bunch, those sea lions (as evidenced by the fact that they’ve been known to stalk boats and steal fish right off fishermen’s lines). To help the government’s hit squad identify the ringleaders, we’ve created our own version of those Iraq War playing-card decks (you know, the ones in which Saddam was the Ace of Spades). We call it "The Columbia’s Most Wanted."

RANK: The Joker
BRAND: None, just a bullet scar
WANTED FOR: When the Joker stole a chinook off a fisherman’s line in the Willamette last spring, the angler countered the attack with a round from a .22 Magnum rifle. (He was later forced to surrender his fishing license—and his gun.) Today the Joker is considered missing in action—and very annoyed.

RANK: Ace of Spades
WANTED FOR: The mastermind behind the pinniped invasion broke into the dam’s fish ladder last season and used the aquatic escalator as a sushi conveyor. In a public display of his contempt for the piscatorial values Northwesterners hold dear, he cavorted and gorged in front of the fish-viewing windows.

RANK: King of Hearts
WANTED FOR: Gluttony. When C319 appeared at the Bonneville buffet in November 2006, he was a scrawny, 812-pound runt. After feasting on an Atkins diet of chinook, he returned to his mating grounds—an island near Los Angeles—340 pounds heavier, making him the largest California sea lion ever captured.

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