Sea Lions or Salmon: Which Protectee to Protect?

What do you do when you spot an endangered animal eating another endangered animal? It sounds like a bad joke, but earlier this year, conservations found themselves on the horns of this very real dilemma, when California sea lions began seriously depleting chinook and steelhead salmon stocks in the Columbia River. We covered this report in the spring, where the compromise then granted officers of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission a license to kill, with caveats.

Since previous attempts to dissuade or scare away the ravenous marine mammals had failed. Officers could shoot those sea lions who were found continually returning to feast on the hapless fish. Salmon, of course, return upstream to freshwater to spawn, though they live in the ocean the rest of their lives. From a strategic point of view, they’re very vulnerable to predators, both due to their large numbers, and the constrained space as they tirelessly climb upriver, leaping over brooks and waterfalls along the way.

Since our last article on the subject, an uproar from animal welfare groups, led by the Humane Society, resulted in a lawsuit, still pending, intended to remove the legal permissions for the sea lion culling. Meanwhile, the problem has gotten worse, as Nature reports.

Over 40 of the sea lions, normally protected, were killed under this special exemption. Rather than minimizing the over-predation on the salmon, however, it has opened up room for a different species, the stellar sea lion, to take advantage of the free lunch. Stellar sea lions consume as much as five times the salmon compared to an individual of the protected species.

Indeed, sea lions are very intelligent animals, and once this “secret fishing spot” was discovered, word was certain to spread. But maybe this wouldn’t be an issue if efforts to recover sea lion populations hadn’t been so successful. The California sea lion’s numbers have tripled since it was given protected status. So do we unleash even more violence on both sea lion species, or do we leave the salmon to their fate (which was extinction in a similar case a few years ago)?

Or maybe it sounds like I’m implying we never should have saved the sea lions in the first place. Not at all, I assure you. It’s just worth noting that nature tends to find the easiest path to equilibrium. There was a certain balance amongst species on this continent before people came here in large numbers, in the first wave 10,000 years ago, and then again just over 500 years ago.

Despite our best intentions, even simply backing off won’t necessarily lead to the same species populations and relationships as existed before we got here. Sometimes balance (where balance is defined as a steady state in terms of which species exist and their population sizes) is restored simply by one or more species disappearing, with others taking over their niches.

On an individual level, animals don’t care about biodiversity or species preservation. That’s an emergent property that occurs spontaneously after a significant period of time. Having knocked over several dominoes already, we’ll probably find it’s not at all easy to put things back the way they’re “supposed” to be. In a system this complicated, nearly every move we make is likely to have some unintended consequences.

Related stories:

Sea Lions Vs. Salmon: A Wildlife Protection Dilemma

7 National Seashores Threatened By Climate Change

Pennsylvania Considering Endangered Status for Bats

Photo credit: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife


Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Gael, do you comprehend that eating fish, especially fish rich in Omega oils is beneficial and healthy for many species, INCLUDING us humans? Sea lions, specifically California sea lions don't need to eat salmon any more than we do. They have become scavengers picking on easy prey, and they don't have to work very hard to get it. Talk about "need" when you are willing to be open minded enough to realize that we as a species deserve to partake of what Mother Nature offers as much as a sea lion.

Gael M.
Gael M.5 years ago

If those who do not need to eat salmon (or to eat anyone else) stopped eating salmon, there would be lots of salmon for those who NEED to eat salmon! I hope that is not too complicated.

Estelita atti5 years ago


Richard S.
Richard Smith5 years ago

The sea lions do not just eat salmon, they eat the long-lived sturgeon also, sometimes to take one bite and then let the fish go and die.

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

You're right, Katy.......we don't HAVE to eat salmon, nor do we HAVE to eat carrots. The point is we do have to EAT and fish, particularly wild salmon is a healthy choice in a balanced diet. Every food consumed is at some "price" to something else.

Past member, they HAVE tried to return these animals to the sea. Where have you missed the fact that for YEARS, they've captured, removed and released back in California the CALIFORNIA sea lions pigging out in the Columbia River? They're back at the dam within a few days. They know this because the captured sea lions were tagged and they were monitored

Tricia Hamilton
Tricia Hamilton5 years ago

We have to save them All!!!

Katy T.
Katy T5 years ago

well then I guess humans will have to stop eating salmon!! Its their fish they eat to survive we DO NOT have to eat salmon to survive, stop fishing salmon

Past Member
Heather T5 years ago

Because of mans greed by overfishing we are in this mess. The sea lions should be returned to the Oceans where they will have a normal life.

Anita Wisch
Anita Wisch5 years ago

We deplete their natural food by overfishing, then wonder why the sea lions have to search much further to feed themselves..........THAT is the problem.

Carol Micek
carol m5 years ago

Once again man has messed things up, now they don't have a easy solution other than killing another poor animal. When will man learn, how greedy and uncaring do we have to be?