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The Damn Shame of the Bonneville Dam

By March 20, 2013No Comments

Commentary by Sandy McElhaney, Dam Guardian volunteer


Sea lions basking in the sun
Photo: Erwin Vermeulen / Sea Shepherd

As marine mammal rescue operations in Southern California grapple with an unprecedented mass stranding of hundreds of starving sea lion pups, about a thousand miles up the coast, Oregon officials are setting traps at the Bonneville Dam to kill up to 92 California sea lions for eating salmon.  Read that again.  Oregon state officials are preparing to kill up to 92 California sea lions for eating salmon.


The California sea lions at the Bonneville Dam, who in ordinary circumstances would have the protection of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), do not have the benefit of this protection because people want them dead.  People wanted them dead so badly that in 1994 they went to the trouble of amending the federal law that was created to protect the sea lions.  Thanks to section 120 of the MMPA, the federal government has the authority to permit states to KILL certain pinnipeds identified as having a “significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of at-risk-salmonoid fishery stocks.”  Under this authority, since 2008 Oregon state workers have removed 40 sea lions from the Columbia River.  Ten of the sea lions were placed in captivity and the rest are dead, simply because people claimed they ate too much salmon.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials don’t just kill California sea lions- they also kill birds.  A recent announcement on the department’s website advertised a job opening for a “Cormorant Surveyor” to “provide assistance to the Avian Predation Coordinator with lethal collection and dissection of cormorants performed on boats in varying weather conditions.”  The position pays between $2,038 and $2,113 per month.  According to the advertisement, previous experience with waterfowl hunting is desirable.

Large Steller sea lions, who presently have the protection of the Endangered Species Act, are also subject to daily hazing at the Bonneville Dam.  In 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced a proposal to “delist” these animals.  If that happens, it will just be a matter of time before Oregon applies to kill them too.  Until then, the death traps are set and ready for the unlucky California sea lions who haul-out near the damn dam.

The indicted California sea lions have been documented on the Columbia River since the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  They were observed as far north as the Celilo Falls.  These animals are part of the natural ecosystem of the river.  They take what they need to survive.  Can the gluttonous species known as Homo sapiens say the same?  Scientists believe that the mass strandings of sea lions in California are linked to overfishing.  The sea lions are starving because their moms are starving.  Their moms are starving because we are eating their food.

The big irony at the Bonneville Dam is the fact that even at their most voracious, the sea lions take less than 4 percent of the salmon.  Guess who takes more than 4 times that amount?  Fisheries – sport, recreational and tribal fisheries are permitted to take up to 17% of the same endangered salmon that the sea lions are killed for eating.  If the salmon are so endangered shouldn’t we be protecting them from the biggest predators of all –us humans?  Or, in fact, does scapegoating sea lions and birds for sustenance eating simply make it easier for humans to take the salmon for themselves?  The wild animals have no choice.  These fish are their only option for sustenance. Humans have plenty of options and have exercised them by building dams that chew up endangered salmon, stocking the river with non-native species that eat the endangered salmon, and polluting the river. It is a dam shame that the fish in the Columbia River are loaded with arsenic, mercury, and PCB at levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations.  It is a dam shame that people kill sea lions so the fisheries can catch and consume those toxic fish.

Volunteers with our 2013 Dam Guardian Campaign are on the ground right now in the Port of Astoria and at the Bonneville Dam to monitor the heinous acts being committed against these sea lions.  Under the direction of Campaign Leader Ashley Lenton, they will observe and report on the branding, hazing, and killing now through the end of May.

For all of the latest updates, be sure to follow us on twitter at @DamGuardians and on Facebook at Sea Shepherd USA.  To apply to serve as a Dam Guardian, email:

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