Get-Tough Tactics For Saving Trout

In a Darwinian struggle at sea, humans are choosing to intervene with deadly force

TO deter sea lions from eating endangered steelhead trout, marine officials here have tried everything from shooting the mammals with rubber-tipped arrows to feeding them bad-tasting fish. No go.

The pesky predators continue to feast on these rare fish, which make their way through a fish ladder at the Ballard ship locks from Puget Sound to spawn near Seattle's Lake Washington. So now the National Marine Fisheries Service has given the state the go-ahead to capture and kill sea lions that are the worst offenders, touching off a heated debate among animal-rights activists and others.

Few people here argue about the need to protect the steelhead, which have plummeted in numbers from 2,500 at the locks in the mid-1980s to an anticipated run of 150 this year. But some environmentalists say the state should find other ways to protect the fish, and animal-rights groups are threatening legal action to prevent the killing of sea lions.

While sea lions have been protected by law since 1972, the new Fisheries Service guidelines would give state officials permission to target any "predatory" sea lion for execution if it has a history of eating steelhead at the locks, disregards underwater noisemakers designed to discourage predators, or is seen hunting steelhead this season. Five sea lions have been identified as possible candidates for execution, including one considered to be the worst offender. That sea lion has been nicknamed "Hondo."

TO be sure, officials have used a variety of methods to deal with Hondo and the others, including changing water flows at the locks, lighting firecrackers, and relocating offenders to California. Last year, Hondo was captured and held in an aquarium near Tacoma until the end of the steelhead run, only to be seen near the locks soon after his release.

As far as the federal government is concerned, the alarming steelhead depletion calls for drastic measures, says Joe Scordino, acting deputy director for the northwest region of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We don't have the luxury anymore with the size of this run to continue experimenting," he says.

But Fred Felleman, a board member of the Washington Environmental Council and a participant in a task force that last year examined the problem, says the government may be directing its efforts toward the wrong party.

Mr. Felleman says the steelhead are easy prey for the sea lions because they have difficulty finding what some say is a poorly designed fish ladder at the locks. He concurs with animal-rights groups that have suggested erecting a permanent barrier that would allow trout through but would stop predators short of the area that contains the fish ladder. "The fish at least would have a refuge until they find the fish ladder," he says.

Officials say they have tried unsuccessfully to use netting as a barrier. But Felleman points out, "We're talking about rigid poles. They could probably rig something up temporarily, and that way they could do a true test of a barrier."

Unless threatened legal action prevents state officials from doing so, the next offenders will be dealt with according to guidelines being developed by a team of veterinarians, marine-mammal caretakers, and federal and state marine-mammal biologists.

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