At 6am, on a foggy morning in July 2006, Mark Lottis-an army of one-launched his Sea Lion Patrol vessel with a mission-a pilot program to deter troublesome sea lions from entering the Rogue River.
Lottis’s hazing strategy starts with a survey of the lower river and bay. If sea lions are encountered, he lobs a seal-bomb (underwater noisemakers) and takes pursuit, herding the animals outside the entrance bar. Here, cracker shells (firecrackers deployed from a shot gun) and/or rubber buckshot are discharged to drive them outside the jetties.
Once the bay is cleared of sea lions, the hazer patrols the river mouth poised to intercept sea lions attempting to re-enter the area. Thus became Lottis’ daily routine during peak sports fishing season, July through September.
Disgruntled anglers noticed the problem years ago. Each season, the salmon-thieves became increasingly more sneaky and aggressive. During the summer of 2005, sea lions stole an average of 15 to 20 fish per day, right before their eyes.
They grab your fish, rip the belly out, and it’s gone," recalls Rena Watson, a part-time resident.
"On several occasions, all fish hooked in my boat were taken by sea lions. Clients who experienced this ‘stealing’ will probably never return to fish," says Shaun Carpenter, guide.
"The past 3 years were out of control," says Greg Eide, a 19-year veteran fishing guide.
Pinnipeds are clever critters. The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects them. California sea lions and Eastern Stock Stellers (also protected by the Endangered Species Act) are the culprits causing the predicament at Rogue River. Salmon is a natural food source for these opportunistic predators, and it’s not uncommon for them to follow prey into fresh water.
The salmon fishery is important to Gold Beach from both a social and economic standpoint. A favorite pastime of locals faced ruin, and a loss of tourism dollars spent by visiting anglers was at stake-a 40 percent chunk of the local economy.
On the Rogue, the dilemma intensified between sports fishermen and sea lions.
Something had to be done.
Mark Lottis, a volunteer advocate for sportsfishing, spearheaded the initiation of a Sea Lion Patrol. This would be a program to haze, without harming, the troublesome sea lions and reverse the Rogue’s tarnished reputation.
Members of the Curry Sportsfishing Association agreed to assign $40,000-funds raised by its membership-to thwart the voracious fish snatchers.
Support for the Sea Lion Patrol program is a cooperative endeavor between the Port of Gold Beach, Curry Sportsfishing Association (CSA), Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
"Everyone was in accord that this was the right place and right time to actively manage a pinneped/human conflict," says Garth Griffin, (NMFS).
It’s a humane, yet assertive, 3-pronged approach that also addresses local factors responsible for the growing conflict abbreviated here from Griffin’s field report:
First, modify dock structures to eliminate haul-out places for sea lions to rest and wait for an easy source of food.
Next, curtail or eliminate the dumping of fish carcasses into the Rogue estuary to stop the attraction of nuisance animals.
Third, employ non-lethal harassment activity during peak sport fishing times. Try above-and-below water noisemaker pyrotechnics (cracker shells, seal bombs) and tactile devices (water hoses, rubber bullets/buckshot) to dissuade nuisance sea lions from entering the estuary.
"This past year yielded impressive results," says Griffin, "Sea lion encounters in the salmon fishery plummeted to a mere fraction of last year, and no negative impacts to salmon have been detected nor signs of injury to marine mammals."
Terry Kennedy, guide, says, "On average, my clients lost 50% of hooked fish to sea lion attacks. After the patrol started, results were immediate. It became rare to lose a fish."
"I lost NO fish to sea lions in 2006. In 2005, my clients lost 30+ fish," says Chris Young, guide
Throughout the hazing campaign, Sea Lion Patrol was cheered on with standing ovations, rounds of applause, and cash donations.
Fishery participants contacted Lottis via radio to report sea lion encounters, so that the vessel could reposition and engage the intruder. The tag team effort resulted in only 11 fish documented as lost to thieving pinnipeds.
Milt Walker, Port Commissioner, " I think it is a win-win situation, a very necessary and successful endeavor."
Bob Lohn, NW Regional Administrator, NMFS, stated in a letter to the editor, CurryCounty Reporter, October 25, 2006: …[Gold Beach] helped not only the fishery but also the sea lions…[The Sea Lion Patrol] was good for fishermen, good for business, and in the end, good for sea lions as we search for humane ways to discourage them from potentially harmful interactions with people."
"Without the Sea Lion Patrol program, I would have quit fishing and sold my boat," says Dante Concetto, Gold Beach resident.
Plans are underway for a return campaign commencing July 2008.