Sea lions are piled up on a dock on Thursday, April 11, 2019, near the East Mooring Basin Boat Ramp in Astoria, Oregon.
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Sea lions are piled up on a dock on Thursday, April 11, 2019, near the East Mooring Basin Boat Ramp in Astoria, Oregon.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Bombs, guns and sea lions on the Columbia River

On the west coast of North America is an ecological puzzle that has become unexpectedly complicated.

It’s the story of oceans, rivers, salmon and survival; also bombs, guns and billion dollar infrastructures. Everyone wants a piece of the prize.


Sea lions are piled up on a dock on Thursday, April 11, 2019, near the East Mooring Basin Boat Ramp in Astoria, Oregon.
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Sea lions are piled up on a dock on Thursday, April 11, 2019, near the East Mooring Basin Boat Ramp in Astoria, Oregon.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer


That includes a 900 pound, eight foot long sea lion and its journey from the Channel Islands of California near Los Angeles, along the coastline and up the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

The sea lion is following the salmon and the salmon are following their nose to their breeding grounds. About 2 million salmon return to their birthplace in the Columbia River to spawn the next generation. In the 1800s, that number was closer to 10 million.


The salmon are declining, but sea lions are increasing, thanks to protections put in place in the 1970s. But now there is a protected species chasing an endangered species up the river.

Some sea lions follow their prey about 150 miles up the river, until they all hit the bottleneck created by the Bonneville Dam. This Depression-era structure has become the focal point for the struggle for survival involving salmon, sea lions and humans.

Fishery technicians with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission conduct a non-lethal hazing mission, using shell crackers and sticks of dynamite to scare sea lions away from the area in an effort to protect salmon, on Friday, April 12, 2019, at the Bonneville Dam.
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Fishery technicians with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission conduct a non-lethal hazing mission, using shell crackers and sticks of dynamite to scare sea lions away from the area in an effort to protect salmon, on Friday, April 12, 2019, at the Bonneville Dam.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer


The dam has thrown the ecosystem out of whack. For the salmon to get past the dam they have to swim up a fish ladder, a series of man-made elevated water pools.

That’s after dodging the 300 or so sea lions that have learned to catch salmon at the base of the dam. In the spring they can eat around 20-40% of the salmon near the dam.

Teddy Walsey, a fishery technician with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission holds a shotgun while looking for sea lions during a non-lethal hazing mission on Friday, April 12, 2019, on the Columbia River near the Bonneville Dam. Shell crackers are shot at the sea lions to scare and drive them away from the area in an effort to protect salmon.
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Teddy Walsey, a fishery technician with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission holds a shotgun while looking for sea lions during a non-lethal hazing mission on Friday, April 12, 2019, on the Columbia River near the Bonneville Dam. Shell crackers are shot at the sea lions to scare and drive them away from the area in an effort to protect salmon.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Native Americans also depend on the salmon, have so for thousands of years. It’s their lifeblood.

So they enter the traffic jam on boats to get between the sea lions and the salmon, scaring away the large mammals with underwater explosives and shotgun bangers. The tactics are legal. Some of the more troublesome sea lions are even euthanized.

48353e065d92595dce2824e27d201079 mp4 thumb 00001.png?ixlib=rails 2.1 Video Icon 2 mins
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Credit: KUOW Video/Megan Farmer

Of course it’s not just sea lions and people who depend on the salmon making it to their spawning grounds and sending the next generation back down the river to the ocean, but countless other species too, including orcas and bears.

They’re all part of the puzzle of survival.

Devayne Lewis, a fishery technician with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission operates the boat while Teddy Walsey, right, looks for sea lions during a non-lethal hazing mission where shell crackers and sticks of dynamite are used to scare sea lions away from the area on Friday, April 12, 2019, near the Bonneville Dam.
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Devayne Lewis, a fishery technician with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission operates the boat while Teddy Walsey, right, looks for sea lions during a non-lethal hazing mission where shell crackers and sticks of dynamite are used to scare sea lions away from the area on Friday, April 12, 2019, near the Bonneville Dam.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer


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