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Sea lion deaths have deep roots in Seattle history

The 1914 Salmon Bay Bridge, as it appears to hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to the Ballard Locks. (Feliks Banel)

10 sea lions have been shot and killed in Puget Sound since late-September. Why is this happening? The reason could very well be traced back to a piece of Seattle history.

RELATED: Another sea lion has been shot and killed in Puget Sound

In 1985, a sea lion, not-so-lovingly dubbed Herschel, and his gang of 10 compatriots swam up to Shilshole Bay from California. At first, residents were enamored, as Herschel’s gang set up its home along the docks of the Ballard Locks. Tourist visits to the gang’s spot numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Soon, though, Herschel and his crew began to decimate the local ecosystem, camping conveniently between the migration of 4,000 steelhead trout and the safety of the fish ladder. Estimates from the time calculate that Herschel was consuming a trout every six minutes, with just one out of every two that passed through his gang’s area successfully making it out alive.

Fast forward to today, and the question that comes to mind is whether the recent deaths of 10 sea lions are a holdover from the enmity earned by Herschel and his gang.

“I think it is,” science writer Kate Gammon told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross on Seattle’s Morning News. “I think the recent assassinations of sea lions are part of our human-animal conflict with these charismatic megafauna.”

The relationship between the Northwest and sea lions has been contentious for decades. In the 1930s, there was even a bounty awarded for killing seals and sea lions in both Canada and Washington state.

“They were caught and sold for oil, hides, meat, and the male genitals were made into aphrodisiacs,” said Gammon.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 officially put an end to that, as the local sea lion population recovered in kind. The Ballard Locks Amendment in 1994 though, itself a direct reaction to Herschel, quickly changed things.

“In 1994, there was an amendment that allowed the lethal taking of individually identifiable pinnipeds having a significant negative impact on the decline and recovery of salmon,” said Gammon.

Since 2008, around 200 sea lions have been lethally removed from the Puget Sound area.

Today, many blame the dwindling local orca population on sea lions, who are known to eat roughly 5 to 7 percent of their body weight daily. That said, killing a handful of sea lions does very little, if anything, to help orcas.

“Killing 10 sea lions is not going to drastically change the amount of fish that’s available for people, or for orcas, or for anyone else in the system,” Gammon pointed out.

As for Herschel, he disappeared without a trace, bringing his reign of terror to an abrupt end.

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