Heartbreak on The Columbia River

A massive 2,000-pound sea lion drags the struggling white sturgeon to the surface. The 50-year-old female — laden with roe — is no match for the vice-like canine teeth of the powerful predator.

In a matter of seconds the soft under belly is ripped open and hundreds-of-thousands of eggs are gulped down. Ever present seagulls feast on scattered eggs. The lifeless carcass slowly drifts away in the current to become food for scavengers downriver. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. This has serious implications for the future of white sturgeon from British Columbia to California.

Predation Crisis
These magnificent, prehistoric creatures have never had a predator — other than man — until recent years on the Columbia River. Sea lions have learned how to kill the much slower, defenseless females. They dive underneath and rip out the bellies to eat the roe. These female sturgeon are 300-, 400-, or more pounds, and a minimum of 20 years old – with some as old as 80!

Wilson's Heartbreak on the Columbia 3-15
Note the size of the sea lions and the canine teeth.

Importance of The Columbia
The Columbia has not been just another river hosting white sturgeon. It has been the hub of the West Coast sturgeon population for Oregon, Washington and Northern California. Sturgeons migrate from the Columbia up and down the Pacific Coast. Sea lions also are having a devastating effect on salmon and steelhead below Bonneville Dam. Bonneville Lock and Dam is located 145 river miles from the mouth of the Columbia River and about 40 miles east of Portland, Ore.

Sturgeon History
White sturgeon numbers in the Columbia collapsed in the 1800s due to over harvesting. Old photographs show giant females, stacked like cordwood, on loading docks, waiting for transport to market. Photos show work horses and mules — in harness — used to pull heavy sturgeon out of the river. Tales were told of giant fish winning an occasional battle and pulling a team into the water.

Early Conservation
Fortunately, some in the fishing industry developed a conscious and didn’t want sturgeon to follow the paths of the carrier pigeon and bison. Regulations were established, and it took roughly 100 years for sturgeon numbers to recover.

Sturgeon Phenomenon
A few years ago, electronics revealed a large mass — downstream — at the base of Bonneville Dam. Engineers thought a huge chunk had broken off the dam, but cameras revealed a gigantic “ball” of sturgeon. There were thousands of sturgeons, stacked up in layers. Biologists were baffled, and no logical explanation could be found. Some speculated they were attempting to get away from sea lions. Today, they are gone.

Huge white sturgeon aggregation on the Washington shore just below Bonneville Dam.
Huge white sturgeon aggregation on the Washington shore just below Bonneville Dam. (Photo by Joe Warren)

“There are no sturgeon there now,” Jimmy Watts, biologist, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife explains. “Sea lions have either killed, or chased, them out.”

Future of Columbia And Willamette Runs
Around the year 2000, sea lions below Bonneville Dam discovered they could kill broodstock females for the roe. Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls prevent sturgeon from traveling upstream. Flow conditions in these areas are ideal for white sturgeon spawning. Large numbers of spawning size fish concentrate in the areas, making them vulnerable to predation by sea lions.

Chased From The Columbia
Traditionally, when water temperature in the Columbia become a few degrees colder than the Willamette, sturgeon move into the Willamette. Now, even more have been chased into the Willamette, and sea lions follow. The area below the falls is much smaller than the Columbia, and sturgeon become much easier prey. Thus, the slaughter continues.

“It won’t be long before sturgeon will be wiped out in the Willamette,” Watts says.

“I had two regular clients from Germany, fishing for oversized sturgeon in the Willamette,” Donald Koskela, of Pastime Fishing Adventures adds. “A massive lion surfaces, a few feet from us, with a 7-footer in his jaws. He thrashed it back and forth, ripping it to shreds. We see it happen again and again.”

By The Numbers
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) observation program at Bonneville Dam documented a steady increase in total predation — by sea lions — of all sizes of white sturgeon through 2011. Only one kill was recorded in 2005, but it jumped to 3,003 in 2011 and an estimated 2,498 in 2012.

Predation on smaller whites throughout the river appears to be increasing in frequency, too, based on observations by staff and reports from anglers and commercial fishers.

In 2009, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) estimates a total annual predation on white sturgeon, in the entire lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers, to have gone from 6,700 fish in 2009, to 10,600 in 2014.

Attempts at Predator Control Thwarted
Each attempt ODFW has made to reduce the number of killer sea lions has been met with injunctions and lawsuits filed by well-funded animal rights groups.

Wilson's Heartrbreak on the Columbia 3-15 Sea Lions 4
Sea lion No. 56 (upper left of photo) was branded a killer 200 miles from this spot by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

If the number of mature sturgeon is rapidly declining now, what hope is there for the future of these living fossils? Will history repeat itself? Will sea lions reduce the number of broodstock like over harvesting did in the 1800s? Powerful indicators are there. Thousands of broodstock are being killed. Numbers of juveniles and “keeper” size fish are down. Recovery from the low of the 1800s was long and slow. Over harvesting by man was stopped through consciousness and regulations to protect the species. Predators lack those capabilities.

Will man be able to regulate predation, or will the predictions of the historic fishery “never reopening” be accurate?

For More Information
For more information on Columbia Sturgeon contact: Jimmy Watts, Biologist, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Northwest District, 971-673-6000, www.dfw.state.or.us.

Call For Support
Efforts are presently being made in Congress for legislation to make it possible for ODFW to implement measures to protect these magnificent prehistoric fish.

Congresswoman Herrera Beutler, of Washington State, is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow authorities to reduce the number of killer sea lions. Sea lion numbers have soared from a low of 25,000 to now over 250,000. Beutler has the support of other Oregon/Washington congressmen. Similar bills have failed in the past. Great white sturgeon need support from members of congress in all parts of the country.

If you are reading this from some state that doesn’t have to worry about sea lion predation, please take a few minutes and contact your local members of congress, ask them to support legislation that will protect the Pacific white sturgeon that may well be on its way to extinction.

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One Response to “Heartbreak on The Columbia River”

  1. Avatar

    Betsy Toll

    I agree that the continuing overall decline in the numbers of Columbia River sturgeon and salmon is tragic. But the analysis of the problem leaves out the key culprit in the picture: dams.

    Sea lions are the latest villains faced by salmon and sturgeon in the Gorge, and a great ruckus is made, demonizing of the sea lions. Killing them is seen as the solution. What is never mentioned is real cause of the imbalance in these natural species’ ranges and relationships: dams. The disruption of natural habitat and migration that is presented by dams along the Columbia and Willamette are the first and the final problem.

    My point is not to advocate for widespread dam removal, but to name the problem clearly, so the responses that are crafted acknowledge the dilemma of species who all do pretty much just what humans do: go where it is easy to find food, and eat what is readily available to eat there. Ultimately they are not causing the problem. We are. Therein lies the real tragedy.

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