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D Day for Sea Lions: Bonneville Demonstration Report Back

Yesterday the injunction against killing sea lions, the stay of execution, ran out. Today, government officials commenced with efforts to trap and kill sea lions on the Columbia river. As they expected, they were met with resistance. And, as we expected, they ran like little babies. They mostly scurried away and hid from uncomfortable questions that members of the public might have for them.
More than a dozen demonstrators met out at Bonneville dam today, on very short notice, to monitor the trapping and killing efforts and to seek answers from government officials who have claimed that this is the way to save salmon. Demonstrators (and indymedia reporters) were met at the gates to the Washington side visitors center with an unusual display of crack security: Instead of waving us uneventfully into the parking area as they usually do, security guards stopped us at the gates to search our cars. They opened up our trunks and peered into the backs of the cars, symbolically safeguarding the nation I suppose, and then they finally waved us in. (As one occupant of our vehicle commented afterward, "Um, what are they looking for? Because... we have a big, huge pelican case back there in plain sight, and he looked right at it and then just let us go through." Indeed, my video camera was packed snugly away in a giant, black case of the same variety usually used to transport large firearms. He never even asked to see inside the case....)(Makes one less surprised that six sea lions could die in government custody last year, under very mysterious circumstances, without anyone from the Army Corps of Engineers even seeing what happened.)

When we got inside, we found the place deserted for all practical purposes. Although the agencies involved in the killing program were clearly expecting us, they did not even pretend to be anything but afraid of the public. They did not make themselves available to answer questions, and instead hid in back rooms cringing behing video monitors, hoping we would all just go away. There was no one even visible behind the desk or indeed, anywhere at all, at the visitor's center. While demonstrators gathered by the front doors, I wandered into the center. It was deserted, except for a few tourists wandering around lost. The escalators had been shut off, and the lobby was empty. "Hello?" I called out. No answer. I wandered down stairs and used the abandoned restroom, where ...someone... had written some graffiti in the stalls in support of sea lions. I wandered back upstairs, and out to the observation decks. Not once did I see or hear anyone at all who worked there. I went back outside, and found the demonstration shaping up nicely. New people had arrived, and Matt Rossell of IDA was speaking into a megaphone, explaining why we were there and why members of the public are skeptical of the government's claims that killing sea lions is the way to save the salmon.

The corporate media was conspicuously absent. A KATU truck did race by, peer in to see demonstrators, and then flee the scene. I guess they imagine that their control over our public airwaves gives them some sort of power to determine what people know and what they do not know. Drag for them, but most people in Cascadia get their news from Indymedia now, where we can post our own news and information. So even though they refused to cover this event, you get to hear about it anyway, and you know that you're not alone in questioning the government's motives and "facts" with regard to their proposal to scapegoat and kill sea lions on the Columbia.

Some dam visitors stopped by to see what was happening. A few asked questions and were horrified to learn that the government planned to kill sea lions at the dam. (Sea lions are a very popular draw for tourists this time of the year, both at the dam and down at the coast. I've found that tourists are usually really upset when they hear that ODFW and WDFW plan to kill them. Today was no different, as one little girl and her family begged to know what they could do to stop this.)

Some guy in a hunting hat who claimed to be working on an "independent documentary" "for myself" wandered around and filmed demonstrators. He turned out to be a fisherman and fishing rights advocate, named Brian Edwards, who initially argued with demonstrators that it would be better to kill sea lions than not to, because salmon are more important than sea lions to his recreational opportunities and, presumably, his economic well being. An interesting thing happened later, though. More on this in a moment.

During a lull in the demonstration, we heard the sound of what seemed to be gunshots. Some reporters walked over to the wall over the water, and saw guns shooting from boats. It appeared to be government hazers. However, we observed one of them dropping something into the water. Given the mysterious deaths last year, this was disconcerting. I still do not know what was dropped, but I have heard rumors that sea lions have been poisoned by things thrown into the water by fishermen in the past. In any event, the boat prowled around the waters throughout the day. And strangely, I saw very few sea lions today. Fewer than I had seen on Friday, when I was there for the ODFW/WDFW press conference.

After chanting and speaking to the small crowd gathered, Matt Rossell and a few others decided to go inside, to try to find someone to speak to regarding the killing program. Demonstrators wanted answers, and presumably the people at the dam could provide them. Once inside, we finally located "Danielle," an Army Corps of Engineers worker, who seemed sunny and polite enough, but had no answers. She promised to call someone who would be able to answer our questions. While we waited, another ACE worker, named Doug, said he was there with dam security to safeguard his workers. He seemed genuinely surprised that we were articulate people not drooling blood and burning furniture in the lobby.

Doug, too, seemed nice enoug. He told me that the reason there was no video footage of the occurrence in the traps last year was, in fact, that the video surveillance equipment had malfunctioned. He is not the first ACE worker to tell me this. Doug confirmed that there had been a malfunction with a DVR unit, which prevented the surveillance footage from being either recorded or, alarmingly, seen by anyone. Asked how long the unit had been broken, Doug said he thought it was several months. Again, he is not the first ACE person to tell me this. Two other sources within the Army Corps of Engineers had told me that the DVR unit had been broken for at least six months, and that, incredibly, "NO ONE NOTICED."

Doug offered the unofficial belief that, perhaps, animal rights activists had tripped the traps last year, and maybe that's how the sea lions died. When I asked if that was honestly what he believed, he backed up and offered a second theory: He thought that perhaps the sea lions had been playing in the water near the traps, and maybe they got tangled in the lines, and maybe the sea lions themselves accidentally tripped the gates on both traps at the same time. So, in essence, they committed suicide. Mystery solved.

While we waited for the person who could answer our questions, whom Danielle had gone off to find, Brian Edwards (the fisherman mentioned above) began arguing that sea lions needed to be killed because otherwise the salmon would go extinct. His only reasoning for this was that salmon populations are crashing, and sea lions eat salmon, so sea lions should be "removed." At first, he was kind of pissing me off. I was standing near him, so I argued with him some. I explained that sea lions have always been on the Columbia. He said that they are taking advantage of the barrier of the dam. I reminded him that, before the dam, they "took advantage" of the barrier of Celilo falls, which was just as much a barrier as the dam. I explained that the two species co-evolved together, and that salmon evolved a run strategy precisely so that they could swamp predators and make it upstream to replenish the species even *with* sea lions eating some of them. I pointed out that the salmon population crash was not correlational with the return of the sea lions to the river, but instead, both species crashed toward extinction at the same time due to over-fishing and over-hunting by humans. The sea lions begain coming back after passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but salmon have not come back because there was no Salmon Protection Act to stop human predation (that's right, PREDATION) on salmon. Brian was clear that he just wants there to be salmon on the river, and that he is desperate for a solution that does not involve his having to give up fishing.

Demonstrators and I pointed out that scapegoating sea lions is no solution at all. This misguided plan is dangerous to both species, since it would mean the death of sea lions, but would do absolutely nothing to address the real causes of the salmon crisis. I then pointed out that we were there because we care every bit as much about salmon as we do about sea lions, and this plan will hurt both species.

It was at this moment that something interesting happened. Brian found some common ground with demonstrators. It turns out, he does recognize that the number one reason for the salmon crisis is, in fact, the "harvesting" of fish by humans, not by sea lions. He is a sports fishermen, and while he seems to admantly oppose restrictions on sport fishing (at least from what I could tell), he clearly recognizes the impact that commercial fishing is having on salmon recovery. He said that if commercial fishermen were forced to stop killing native salmon, it would have a greater impact on salmon recovery than all the sea lions and all the dams on the entire river. Brian then explained that he believes the problem on the river is not sea lions really, but "The four H's." These are, in order of importance according to Brian:

1. Harvest (commercial nets on the river)
2. Habitat (destruction of salmon habitat)
3. Hydro (The dams killing fish and making fish habitat uninhabitable)
4. Hatcheries (Hatchery fish do not have the survival skills or the genetic diversity to replensih the species, but merely compete with wild fish for food and then fail to return to spawn.)

As it happens, most of us share Brian's concerns about these four issues. Brian explained that there are 82 gill netters on the Columbia river, and that these netters have enormous power because, "It's not just them. They're supported by the processors as well." He talked about feeling like the salmon were disappearing into commercial nets, and feeling powerless to do anything about it because commercial fishing interests just have too much clout in the NW. Fish and Wildlife officials are in their pockets. Brian conceded that the sea lions are a convenient target for anger and bitterness, but they are not the reason that the salmon are disappearing, and killing them will not save the salmon. Nothing can save the salmon if the nets remain on the rivers.

It was a strangely productive dialogue. I mean, the guy was still kind of a knucklehead, but he did realize that maybe we're right about the sea lions, and we realized that maybe we can all work together to find a *real* solution to the salmon crisis. Maybe if we work together with people like Brian to get the gill nets off the river, it will actually help the salmon to recover, and will make it unnecessary to scapegoat sea lions for human error. This won't be easy. As Brain explained, people in "his group" don't often see eye to eye with people like us. In fact, they see anyone who cares about sea lions as some kind of bizarre, "tree-hugging," "peta-type," "anti's." And of course, we have our own stereotypes regarding people like Brian. Whatever. The fact remains, all of us care about salmon, and all of us care about finding a real solution to the crisis that will actually be effective in bringing the salmon back to the Columbia. None of us believes that killing sea lions is really any sort of solution at all. Maybe, just maybe, we really can work together toward some common ground that will involve a future for salmon, and will not involve bullets for sea lions.

After a very long wait, a man in a yogi-bear park ranger hat, named Jim Rinkles came to speak with us. I have no idea why Danielle went to fetch this man, nor why she assured us that he could answer the questions that we had about the killing program.
Mr. Jim had a pretty big chip on his shoulder, seemed to find interacting with us distasteful, and gave the standard answer to everything we asked: "It's not us. We have nothing to do with this. Talk to the ODFW and the WDFW and NMFS." When I pointed out that, at the very least, Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for security at the dam, and I asked him about the huge breach in security that happened last year, resulting in the deaths of six sea lions at the foot of the dam, Jim responded, "There was no security breach." That seemed pretty incredible to me, given the facts of the situation, and I said so. He continued to respond that there had been "no security breach." Asked why there had been no video footage of the traps, he had no answer except to say that it wasn't his fault.

I asked about whether there had been an equipment failure with the cameras. He said he would not say. (No, really, he would not. He said, "I didn't say I can't tell you, I said I won't tell you.") I then asked whether there are cameras pointed at the traps now. He said he would not tell me that either. I said that, as a member of the public who paid a huge chunk of tax money for security cameras at the dam, I wanted to know whether he has at least addressed the huge problem that was so glaringly apparent last year, and that led to the unexplained deaths of six sea lions. He responded, "Again, I'm not going to tell you that." Hmmmm.

Jim was finally forced to concede that the Army Corps of Engineers is, indeed, the agency that was responsible for security up at the dam, but he continued to insolently deny that there had been any security problems last year or that he owed the public any assurances whatsoever that the problems have been addressed and corrected. Given the very sensitive nature of a mega dam as possible terrorist target, I said that I felt he should be more concerned about any breach of security, such as the one that occurred last year. Jim responded, "I guess I will just have to disagree with you there." Well. As long as Jim feels comfortable with people sneaking unseen into the restricted area at the foot of the dam and committing violent, felonious acts, I guess the rest of us can just stop worrying about this.

Good to know the government is watching out for us.

Even though the hazing continued throughout our visit, Jim denied that the Army Corps of Engineers could answer any questions about the program, and he denied that anyone was present anywhere on site who could answer any questions. He said he did not think anyone was over-seeing the hazing operations. (An incredible claim, given that this is day 1 of the killing program. It's impossible to believe that there was no one there in charge. The truth is, like the ACE workers, the government officials overseeing the killing program were hiding like babies from the public.)

After the demonstration, some of us sneaked around through the woods near the dam, and discovered another trap, this one more hidden from public view. We stationed ourselves on both the Oregon and Washington sides, and watched for hours to bear witness to whatever would happen to sea lions. We saw a lot of hazing going on, and we saw several observers (without supervisors apparently), but we did not see any trapping or shooting today. It could have gone on down river and out of our line of sight, or it could have happened this morning before we arrived, but we did not see any sign of the executions today. We will be present and observing all week. More information will be provided shortly for anyone who wants to assist with this effort.