SEATTLE — A fat, sassy California sea lion nicknamed Herschel is being blamed for the devastation of an entire run of steelhead trout, one of the most popular game fish in the Pacific Northwest.
Herschel has taken up residence at the entrance to the Lake Washington Ship Canal, a bottleneck through which the seagoing trout must pass to reach their spawning grounds in the Cedar River and its tributaries.
The number of steelhead returning to the Cedar declined by 80%--from 2,575 in 1983 to just 464 last year--and experts think Herschel is the reason. What's more, he's a protected species under the 1972 Marine Mammal Act.
Hershel often is accompanied by as many as three smaller sea lions on his daily chow raids from mid-November through March.
"They're living in the wild and that's their food source," said Bill Dickerson, an agent with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "That's just like going to the public market for him."
Herschel hangs out just below the fish ladder at the city's Ballard Locks, the gateway to the passage between Puget Sound and Lake Washington.
Periodically, there's a splash in the water and Herschel--who weighs between 600 and 900 pounds--surfaces with a fish in his jaws. Wildlife agents have seen Herschel kill 13 fish in an hour and 20 minutes.
Fisheries workers have tried to scare the sea lions with "seal bombs"--large firecrackers--and ultrasonic devices, but Herschel foils the ultrasound by sticking his head out of the water and swimming away for a few hours.
Federal law allows killing a protected animal if it's a nuisance, but experts hope there's another solution, such as trapping Herschel and moving him where he'll cause less damage.