Poached Salmon — or Sea Lions?

Steller sea lions were once the primary prey of the killer whale. Now this marine mammal, protected under the Endangered Species Act, may face an even more threatening foe: the Canadian fish farmer.

Driven by a shortage of pollock and herring stocks, sea lions are infiltrating coastal fish farms, where plentiful salmon are easy prey. And licenses from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) make it perfectly legal for farmers to retaliate.

“In the last few years, we’ve noticed an increase from 25 to 30 animals killed per year to more than double that number,” says Ron Ginetz, DFO aquaculture specialist. Marine biologists fear the trend bodes ill for the Steller, which today numbers only 10 to 20 percent of what it did 30 years ago.

The sea lions are simply hungry, explains Brian Gorman, spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, Washington. “Sea lions are over-consuming salmon everywhere and especially in restricted areas where salmon are endangered,” he says.

The 100 or so farms in southern British Columbia employ open-water pens in which salmon hover by the thousands, separated from predators by only a net barrier. “Any seal or sea lion swimming by can see the salmon—it’s like putting a dinner bell out there,” says Valerie Langer, spokesperson for the Vancouver Island-based Friends of Clayoquot Sound. Along with The Sierra Club, it is lobbying to have the fish farms moved inland, away from sea lion temptation.

American marine biologists worry that the Canadian killings might affect the Steller population in U.S. territory, which has been in steep decline. Killing sea lions, under any circumstances, is illegal in the United States. There are only about 500 left in California, and intensive industrial trawling in Alaska has depleted fish stocks that are traditionally the Steller’s core food source, further threatening its survival.

The Canadian DFO is investigating ways to curb the trend. “Some farms seem to be shooting a lot of sea mammals and some not,” says Peter Olesiak, a DFO research biologist. “Our goal is to reduce the number of animals that are killed by finding solutions.

But environmentalists say the government effort is too little, too late. “This is a very piecemeal effort to address the bad press around the sea lion killings,” says Langer. “The fish farm industry is not addressing the larger issues like the location of the farms, pollution, inadequate net pens and escaping fish.”