Like gluttonous courtiers around a medieval banquet table, fat California sea lions have been lolling about at Seattle’s Ballard Locks, gorging themselves on the steelhead salmon struggling to make their way upstream.
Now the state is going to put an end to the royal pig-out.
With the fish runs depleted, and much of the blame put on the portly pinnipeds, the state got federal approval earlier this month to shoot two of the more voracious sea lions, a move that has drawn animal-rights protests and pleas to the governor.
“Nobody wants to kill sea lions, but this is just a matter of priorities,” said Kathleen South of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s just reached a very critical point.”
The sea lions are protected by federal law but are neither a threatened nor endangered species.
The bewhiskered behemoths targeted for death have been identified by the state as Nos. 17 and 225. No. 17 is Hondo, the only one of the pack that has been named and the biggest sea lion on record at 1,084 pounds. Adult males normally run 750 to 1,000 pounds.
If state agents spot Nos. 17 or 225, they can shoot the animal with a bullet or a lethal dose of tranquilizers. As of Wednesday, no shots had been fired.
Every year, as salmon make their way from saltwater Shilshole Bay on Puget Sound to freshwater Lake Union and Lake Washington, they are delayed by the Ballard Locks, where they must climb a fish ladder.
The setting is a smorgasbord for hungry sea lions, some of which just sit and wait for lunch to swim by, and devour the 25- to 30-inch fish. As many as 120 sea lions gather at the locks during the April-May steelhead run.
Animal-rights activists say the locks are the problem - not the sea lions. They are calling instead for major changes, including new fish ladders, so sea lions and salmon can co-exist.
“It’s ridiculous to think that killing sea lions is going to restore the salmon runs. There are far worse problems at issue here,” said Will Anderson of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society’s Seattle chapter. “Killing them won’t solve anything.”
PAWS and the Humane Society of the United States have asked Gov. Mike Lowry to intervene.
On Thursday, those two groups, and the Earth Island Institute, announced they were suing in federal court in Washington, D.C., to stop any sea lion killings. The lawsuit says the National Marine Fisheries Service has yet to demonstrate that no feasible alternatives exist.
The fisheries service said some agency employees have received death threats. An agency sea-lion trap, used for research, was vandalized on Sunday, one day before the license-to-kill went into effect, and a group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front took responsibility.
All week, a small group of placard-toting demonstrators has staged a daily “death watch” at the locks.
“I just can’t believe they’re trying to make the sea lions a scapegoat for the mishandling of our natural resources,” protester Catherine O’Neal said.
The state has received pressure from Hollywood as well, including “Lethal Weapon” director Richard Donner and Vicky Herman, producer of “The Usual Suspects.” She wrote to the governor threatening to “do serious financial damage” and never to make another film in Washington if one sea lion is killed.
It’s not as if the state hasn’t tried something less drastic.
Over the years, wildlife officials have spent more than $1 million trying to drive the sea lions away. The animals have been unfazed by air horns, firecrackers and rubber bullets. Sea lions were trapped and then released some 900 miles away in California, but they swam back.
Placing them in zoos is out, too, said Brian Gorman of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“They are hard to train, they tend to be aggressive, they eat a lot, they are not cute,” he said. “Even temporarily placing them is more trouble than it’s worth. There aren’t any zoos that I know of that want them.”
The locks - and the sea lions themselves - have been a tourist attraction for years, with windows at the fish ladders so visitors can watch the steelhead, and a park for picnics as people watch ships go through the locks.
According to state figures, about 3,000 steelhead annually passed through the Ballard Locks in the early 1980s. In the mid-1980s, California sea lions started arriving and eating steelhead, and the size of returning fish runs has been declining ever since. Just 126 fish made the trip last year.