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Northwest Sea Lions

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West Coast Eco-War: Is This the Face of a Killer?
A fleet of doe-eyed, whip-smart sea lions is laying siege to the Pacific Northwest, wreaking havoc on surf breaks, fishing lines, and endangered salmon runs. The only thing that can stop the criminal masterminds? An act of Congress—or a loaded rifle.   Text by Paul Kvinta   Photograph by Ami Vitale

Photo: Sea lion in water

To say that C319 had a weight problem wouldn't be altogether fair or accurate. True, hauling out onto the floating wooden platform below Oregon's Bonneville Dam probably wasn't as easy as it had been in seasons past, since, admittedly, he'd put on quite a few pounds. How could he not during the spring Chinook salmon run? The fish were so confused when they arrived at the dam, so uncertain of how to advance farther up the Columbia River, that all C319 and his pals had to do was hang out at the fish ladders and wait. Only SeaWorld offered an easier meal.

Technically speaking, C319's rapidly expanding waistline was a good thing. At the end of the spring run he would have to swim from Oregon all the way back to his breeding rookery in the Channel Islands off Southern California. That place was a damn mosh pit. He needed to be able to throw his weight around. More likely than not, C319 held territory near the water, the better to snag females coming and going for a swim. When not servicing his harem, he would engage in the near constant and sumo-like work of defending his turf—charging other bulls, chest bumping, head faking, savaging rivals with his three-inch (8-centimeter) canines, and being savaged in return. Two weeks of nonstop sex and pugilism can take a lot out of a guy. There'd be no time to eat during that entire period, so he had to do some serious salmon-loading while at Bonneville.

April 19, 2007, the day C319 heaved himself onto the floating platform, was no different from any other at the dam. Fish, rest, fish, rest. That's what sea lions did at Bonneville. Then the trapdoor on the platform slammed shut.

This wasn't C319's only run-in with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The first time he was captured, in 2002—when he received the searing brand "C319" across his back—he weighed only 410 pounds (186 kilograms). The second time, in 2006, he weighed double that. Now he was lifted out of the trap with a crane, loaded into the back of a Dodge pickup (seriously testing the truck's suspension), driven 140 miles (225 kilometers) downriver to Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia, plopped onto the ODFW sea lion scale, and—cowabunga!—at 1,153 pounds (523 kilograms) he instantly became the largest California sea lion ever captured. The scientists had to use a truck scale to double-check his weight.

After getting a satellite tracking device pasted to his back, C319 settled in for a night's sleep in the parking lot of the Comfort Suites in Astoria. The next morning he and one of the ODFW biologists, Robin Brown, headed down the Oregon coast on U.S. 101, stopping for a break at Yellow Dog Espresso in Hebo. Brown got a mocha frappuccino; C319 got a hose-down. They continued on to Newport, 150 miles (241 kilometers) south of Astoria, where C319 was liberated at South Beach State Park. He bounced off the tailgate, waddled down the beach, and sat in the surf for a few moments, no doubt trying to figure out where on Earth he was. Brown, for his part, was hoping C319 was so fat and so full he wouldn't swim the 300-plus miles (483-plus kilometers) back to Bonneville Dam, where some 80 California sea lions were engaged in an all-you-can-eat buffet that was arguably threatening 13 runs of endangered salmon.

But C319 was apparently still hungry. After paddling slowly out into the water, he immediately turned north up the coast, back toward the Columbia River.

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Few spectacles in nature are more riveting than a sea lion feasting on a jumbo salmon. I don't get to witness the great C319 in action, as I've arrived at the Columbia River Gorge three days after his relocation. But as I lean over the deck railing at Bonneville Dam's Power Station Two, I do get to watch his comrades chow down. Because they have teeth made for gripping rather than chewing, sea lions grab salmon on the underside near the tail, blast to the surface, and flail the fish violently back and forth until it flies apart in a chummy blur of water, blood, guts, and pink fillets. They then dive with a chunk of flesh, consume it underwater, and continue resurfacing to fetch the other parts. Mobs of rapacious gulls battle for the leftover bits.

I'm viewing this chompfest with Brown, Steve Jefferies, and Robert Stansil, the three mild-mannered scientists charged with the unenviable task of putting a stop to this free lunch. In 1997 Brown began catching and tagging sea lions downriver in Astoria to get a basic understanding of their movement in the lower Columbia. In 2002, C319 and 30 other sea lions spent much of April and May in the tailrace at Bonneville. Never before had so many sea lions congregated at the dam during the spring Chinook run. They had clearly figured out that the dam, one of 14 on the Columbia, represents the first major obstacle salmon face during their annual spawning migration upriver. Since then, at least 80 sea lions, including C319, have shown up every year, always arriving a bit earlier and staying a bit longer. The scientists estimate that this gang alone is taking at least 4 percent of the spring run, a not insignificant figure given that salmon numbers in the Columbia are shrinking rapidly, and that state and federal governments are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into restoring the Northwest's fabled runs.

Many people blame this ecological imbalance on the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Rarely has a piece of environmental legislation achieved such raging success. The MMPA's ban on killing any species of marine mammal has swollen the population of California sea lions from barely 50,000 in the 1970s to 300,000 today. Now Brown and his colleagues find themselves caught between two iconic American species pitted against each other, with one that no longer needs help laying waste to one that most certainly does, and a law that effectively favors the former over the latter. And there's not much they can do about it. Lethal removal of even just one problem sea lion would literally require an act of Congress. "We're being asked to manage these species, but we haven't been given the tools to do it," says Jefferies. "There should be options. They should make it the 'Marine Mammal Management Act.'"

These guys aren't the only ones complaining. Up and down the West Coast, as the sea lion population has boomed over the past three decades, boat owners, harbor masters, fishermen, and beachgoers are pulling their hair out over an animal that is fearlessly expanding its range. Each August all the male sea lions in the Channel Islands breeding rookeries disperse en masse in search of prime fishing opportunities as far north as Alaska. Like marauding British soccer hooligans, they find themselves increasingly unwelcome wherever they go. At marinas in Newport Beach and Monterey, California, lounging sea lions have sunk moored sailboats. They've commandeered swim platforms, fouled docks with fishy vomit, and kept nearby residents up all night with incessant barking. One bull nibbled on 14 terrified swimmers off San Francisco last year. In Gold Beach, Oregon, sea lions unhooked so many salmon that the town's renowned sportfishing economy nearly collapsed. "Sea lions are really adaptable, they don't mind people, and they're superintelligent," Brown says. "When the world comes to an end someday, the only survivors will be cockroaches, coyotes, and California sea lions."

There's also the little matter of what happened at Ballard Locks in Seattle during the 1980s, an event that continues to haunt scientists. In 1984 a half dozen sea lions began showing up regularly at the locks to dine on the spring steelhead run. By the late 1980s they were consuming 50 percent of the fish. Alarmed, Jefferies and his colleagues tried every nonlethal method possible to scare them away, including acoustic devices, barrier nets, rubber bullets, and underwater percussive "seal bombs." They even tried to sicken sea lions by feeding them fish tainted with lithium chloride. Nothing worked. The fact that all of this was unfolding in the middle of Seattle didn't help. Smitten citizens and local media christened the sea lions with names—"Herschel," "Fang," "Spot," "Hondo"—and rallied around them. Residents of a condominium above the locks hung a giant scoreboard announcing how badly the sea lions were beating the biologists. After a long legislative slog, when Jefferies finally received federal permission in 1994 for the lethal removal of five animals considered the most problematic, Greenpeace led protest rallies and the Humane Society filed a lawsuit. But by then lethal removal was a moot point. The entire steelhead run had been wiped out.

Officials are determined not to let that happen again. Their resolve is reflected in the size of the intergovernmental coalition they've assembled for the fight at Bonneville. On paper 80 sea lions wouldn't appear to have much chance against the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and four autonomous American Indian nations. But tell that to C319's ardent colleague, C404. One Corps employee described this sea lion to me as "that miserable little wretch." C404 has single-handedly triggered more than a million dollars' worth of structural changes to Bonneville Dam. In 2004 he shocked both tourists and fish counters by suddenly appearing inside the dam's fish ladder viewing window. The Corps responded by installing SLEDs, sea lion excluder devices (essentially, giant burglar bars), at all the fish ladder entrances. Not to be denied, C404 then accessed the ladder by squirming through openings in what are known as "floating orifices" on the faces of the two power stations. After the Corps sealed those off, the sea lion began jumping six feet (2 meters) out of the water and over the tops of the orifice gates. He might as well wear a red cape. He's unstoppable. "Sea lions are very good problem solvers," says Ron Schusterman, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "Their memory is excellent, they learn rules, they can generalize across situations. They learn how to learn."

The government's secret weapon, of course, its nuclear option, is lethal take. Under the MMPA, getting permission to kill even the most hardened offender, like C404, takes years, which is why congressmen from Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State have introduced the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act. The legislation would significantly streamline the permit-granting process for eliminating select sea lions. But its fate, at best, is uncertain.

We're still standing on the deck when a boat suddenly comes speeding toward us, guns blazing. Boom! Boom, boom! The volley of deafening cracker shells sends the sea lion we're watching underwater. The boat whips to the right, and the two gunmen in the bow take aim at a culprit near the south fish ladder entrance. Boom! Boom! The vessel continues zipping to and fro, blasting at whatever moves. The smell of gun smoke wafts toward us. Since March, Bonneville's "sea lion hazing program" has been operating sunup to sundown, every day. Brown and Jefferies have also been capturing sea lions and moving them down to Astoria. Before federal officials will even consider granting the biologists lethal take as a management tool, they have to show that, despite their best efforts, none of the various nonlethal remedies succeeded in keeping the animals away from the dam.

That shouldn't be too hard. Ten minutes after the hazing boat leaves to chase other sea lions, our boys are back at it, nailing salmon right in front of us. 

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I spend the next ten days cruising up and down the river, checking in with sea lion lovers and haters of all stripes—fishermen, scientists, Native Americans, tourists, fish processing plant owners—all the while hoping to catch a glimpse of the world-record fatty, C319, if indeed he's actually swimming all the way back to Bonneville.

My first stop is a sportfishing "hog line" on the Willamette River, a tributary of the Columbia. This particular line consists of eight boats arranged gunwale-to-gunwale across the river. The hogs in question are the whopper salmon attempting to swim past our fixed lines to their upriver spawning grounds. We have a cloudless April sky, a gentle breeze, and the comforting sound of beer cans being crushed every few minutes. What could be sweeter? One boat over, someone mentions maybe going to his grandson's baseball game later. Two boats over, a guy nods off into the sports section. I'm gnawing on cold fried chicken alongside Jim Martin, a rabid fisherman who once served as the salmon adviser to former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber. Martin launches into a fascinating discussion about bananas, about how no self-respecting salmon fisherman will allow bananas on his boat, how it's seriously taboo, how the ionic structure of bananas repels the salmon. Or something. Anyway, he's talking about banana ions when . . .


The cry comes from somewhere down the line, and all eyes focus immediately on Ron Prentice's doubled-over rod. Prentice grabs it and begins reeling his heart out, but he doesn't get far when, suddenly, a blubbery colossus explodes out of the water 40 feet (12 meters) behind Prentice's boat, the still-hooked salmon flapping wildly in the creature's mouth.

"Sea lion!" someone shrieks.

Sonofabitch has Ron's fish!

Then all hell breaks loose. Men whip out slingshots and begin launching projectiles at the perpetrator, who is now thrashing the fish to pieces and mocking us in the process. Prentice's boatmate quickly unmoors the vessel and, with Prentice still reeling, attempts to broadside the thieving bastard. The sea lion dives, then surfaces, then dives again. He's hauling tail downriver. Meanwhile, Tim Juarez, a fishing guide who's been back-trolling near us with a boatful of high-dollar clients, swoops in fast and close with a paintball assault rifle and sprays the sea lion with candy-colored ammo. The hog line cheers. Expletives ricochet. You don't just go swiping a man's salmon, no sir, not here. Not on this river. Martin shakes his head. "These fish are so hard to get," he says. "Guys might fish 20 days to catch one fish, so the idea of losing one to a sea lion, it just drives 'em nuts."

By the time I reach Prentice's boat to offer my condolences, he's on the phone, describing what's left of his catch to his wife. "Baby, you're not gonna believe what I'm holding on the end of my line here," he says. "A head." Somehow he remains in surprisingly good humor. "Welcome to our world," he tells me, shrugging. "What can I say? Luckily I got my hook back this time. Last night a sea lion took my $6 lure to boot."

Clearly these guys hate the rules, but at least they play by them. All of their hazing techniques are perfectly legal. That had not been the case a few days before I arrived in Oregon. About 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of here, on Sauvie Island, where the Willamette empties into the Columbia, a fisherman with a .22 rifle put two rounds into the head and neck of a sea lion that had filched his partner's catch. Police later nabbed the shooter, who now faces a $100,000 fine and one year in prison. But by the time the cops found the sea lion, there wasn't much they could do. It was floundering in the water, barely able to swim, unable to dive, unable to do much of anything really.  

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Less than 72 hours after Robin Brown released him off Newport, I learn that C319 had been spotted lounging on "S" Float, a dock below 36th Street in Astoria, living large with a mob of other sea lions. If he heisted any salmon during his 150-mile (241-kilometers) dash back up the coast, he'd survived the wrath of fishermen to tell about it. But Astoria was just a pit stop for him. After a 24-hour rest he was back in the water and, according to his satellite tag, headed upriver fast. Bonneville or bust.

He's gone by the time I arrive in Astoria with Brown, Jefferies, and four sea lions we've captured and trucked down from Bonneville to tag and release. This quaint port town has a commercial gill-netting fleet of 150 boats, which explains why many of its citizens can't work up much enthusiasm for Brown and Jefferies turning their sea lions loose here. Besides, Astoria already has its fair share. Below the East Mooring Basin, on a dock to which the marina has long since removed the gangway and effectively surrendered to the pinnipeds, more than a hundred lie squeezed together and jumbled atop one another in a semiharmonious state of near bedlam, some whining dramatically, others snapping viciously, still others dozing completely. Whenever an animal at one end of the dock repositions himself, it creates a domino-like ripple of wriggling, bitching, and moaning all the way down the line.

With dwindling salmon stocks and shrinking fishing seasons, the frustration among commercial fishermen in this town is palpable. Pickup trucks have bumper stickers featuring a red slash through a cartoon sea lion chomping a salmon. At Fish Hawk Processing, where much of the fleet brings its catch, several of the salmon on the cleaning and gutting table have the telltale gash marks of sea lions on their bellies. "I don't want to eliminate the species," says owner Steve Fick. "But we have to do something. Their consumption is huge. We're not talking about a handful of wolves coming back to Yellowstone. We're talking about thousands of sea lions doing massive damage." Fick holds out little hope that federal authorities will ever fully appreciate the problem or find the political will to correct it. "You think any senator on the East Coast will harm a sea lion?" he asks rhetorically. "People equate it with clubbing seal pups."

That lack of faith in the system no doubt explains the skull collection in Matt Tennis's basement office in Oregon State University's Seafood Lab, a few blocks from Fick's place. Tennis works with Brown and Jefferies, and in the past five years he's performed necropsies on 31 sea lions that have washed up in this area, 60 percent with bullet holes in them. "The most common time to find them shot is within a week or two after gill-net season," he says. "It takes about that many days for the body to become bloated and wash up." Tennis reaches inside his closet and pulls out the skull of C57, which contains a bullet hole through the left side. "He had three whole coho salmon in his stomach," Tennis says. "He was obviously working a net somewhere." He shows us the three .22-caliber slugs that he dug out of C433's skull. He points out how the kill shot to C116 entered one eye and exited the other. C298's skull tells the story of an animal that clearly tempted fate one too many times. Two earlier bullet wounds that shattered most of the teeth in his lower right jaw seem to have healed. But a later bullet to his back left skull did him in. "He was shot going away," says Tennis.

In the midst of all this interspecies vitriol, I'm amazed to bump into a real-life Dr. Doolittle out on the pier, a retiree from California named Eric Gardiner. Kindly and bespectacled, Gardiner lives blissfully among his sea lion pals on a modest sailboat at the marina. "I was only planning to stay a year," he says, "but I've been here seven years because of these guys." Over coffee aboard his 30-foot (9-meter) vessel, with a cacophony of barking and yelping just a few feet away, Gardiner flips through snapshots of sea lions that have come and gone from his life, fondly recalling them like they were old college buddies. "Ah, 280," he sighs. "He was just so friendly. He'd roll over and let me scrub him with my deck brush." C143 was an ornery old cuss—"He'd do five or six mock charges at you, but he didn't mean anything by it"—and C377 had a flashy pink scar around his neck, due to an unfortunate entanglement with a wayward piece of packing cord. Gardiner marvels at the commotion sea lions raise the night before they go out fishing. "They party all night long. I mean a big splashy pool party," he says. "I can barely hear my TV!" And nothing, he insists, beats a glorious sunset in his dockside lawn chair with nuzzling sea lions on either side of him.

Gardiner seems representative of what the proponents of lethal take are up against—a public perception of sea lions as extremely cuddly ball-balancers and hoop-jumpers, with heartwarming puppy dog eyes for added effect. As he and I stroll about the marina docks past the beasts, I notice several tourists on the pier above us. Some aim video cameras down at the critters. Others capture their vocalizing on cell phones, sharing the magic with faraway friends.

Steve Fick's assessment of East Coast politicians is probably correct. Most Americans absolutely adore sea lions. 

■ ■ ■ ■ ■
Then again, most Americans really adore salmon too. Culturally, if not economically, the fish practically defines the Northwest. For Indians here the significance goes beyond even that. Local tribes view salmon as religion. Literally.

To witness this, I head upriver to the Umatilla Reservation in eastern Oregon for the annual salmon and roots feast. Standing outside the ceremonial longhouse, waiting for the meal to begin, Thomas Morning Owl shares with me the creation story of his people. "When man was preparing to come to Earth," he explains, "the Creator gathered together all the beings in existence and spoke to them. He asked, 'Who will provide for man?' Salmon stepped forward first and said that he would. He said, 'My body will become his body, my life will become his life.'" Morning Owl is wearing buckskin and feathers, with a beaded medallion around his neck and strips of otter pelt braided into his long hair, his finest dress for one of the holiest events of the year. The Umatilla honor a handful of "First Foods" as they return each year, those that stepped forward and answered the Creator's call—salmon, elk, a variety of roots, cranberries, chokecherries. Of these, salmon rates as first among equals. Morning Owl explains that in exchange for these beings giving their lives, humans agreed to protect the animals and the environment. This is a sacred covenant. It's the Creator's Law.

I don't know if it's my good looks or if they just need warm bodies, but somehow, completely undeservedly, I'm tapped to be a salmon server in the ceremony. It's a great honor, and it means that I will carry platters of fish into the longhouse with about 25 other guys and serve it to some 500 waiting people. Morning Owl pulls me aside and reminds me in no uncertain terms, "You're not just carrying salmon, you're carrying the Law."

The Umatilla belief system is called Washaat, or Seven Drum, and when I enter the building with the other servers, seven men up front are pounding on drums
and singing a song passed down since the beginning of time, a song about the creation and the Law. A seven-foot-tall carved statue of a salmon balanced on its tail stands behind us, and as the drumbeat quickens and the singing reverberates louder through the longhouse, the servers and I spin a full 360 degrees in honor of the Creator. We then begin snaking through the crowd as the singing and drumming continues, distributing our plates of salmon. The women servers follow us, carrying the roots. When everything is served, words are spoken, declarations are made, testimony is given.

Then we feast. 

After today the Umatilla can catch salmon to eat, to share, to sell, whatever they want. But the first spring salmon is always consumed in this fashion, communally and religiously. Later, as we're leaving the longhouse, Bobbie Conner, director of the reservation's Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, tells me, "The tasting today was a sacrament. Non-Indian people say we consume whales and animals, and that means we don't care about them. But tasting means that we do care. It's like receiving the body of Christ."

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There's disagreement over whether sea lions historically occupied the Columbia River. The written record, including the journals of Lewis and Clark, seems to refer only to seals and otters, leading some to argue that sea lions should be treated as ruthlessly as any invasive species. "They're brand-new opportunistic feeders taking advantage of a situation that's out of balance," says Hobe Kytr of Salmon for All, an advocacy group for commercial fishermen and processors. "We've taught them to be fearless of man. Terrorizing them is exactly what needs to happen."

But Indians on the river say that their ancestors made leggings from sea lion flippers, and their oral history mentions the animals upriver as far as Celilo Falls. I spend an afternoon driving to Celilo village with Jeremy Five Crows of the Columbia River Inter Tribal Fisheries Commission. Historically, Celilo Falls, once a thundering 50-foot (15-meter) cascade 58 miles (93 kilometers) from Bonneville, was one of the easiest places to catch salmon battling their way upriver. Tribes journeyed from hundreds of miles around to fish and trade there, constructing wooden platforms that extended out over the swirling mist and snagging salmon with 30-foot-long (9-meter-long) dip nets. Trade goods from as far east as Michigan have been found in middens along the Columbia, suggesting that dried salmon traded far and wide. "Celilo was like the Wall Street of the West," says Five Crows.

Then, in 1937, the Corps of Engineers completed Bonneville Dam, and in 1957 the Dalles Dam, plunging Celilo Falls beneath 120 feet (37 meters) of water and instantly destroying an entire way of life. The dams also marked the beginning of a long downward slide for salmon. The government built 14 dams on the main stem of the Columbia and more than 250 in the basin. The salmon population dropped from some ten million fish to less than 300,000.

"It's not like sea lions have never been here before," Five Crows says, as we travel east on Interstate 84, past hulking Bonneville Dam. "It's just that we've reduced the fish so much that now what they eat is noticeable. We're busy shooting firecrackers at sea lions when the thing that's really taking fish sits right before our eyes."

Dams kill fish less dramatically than sea lions but in a greater variety of ways, particularly juvenile salmon, or smolts, migrating downstream. Not only do smolts die passing through a dam's hydroelectric turbines, but they struggle to negotiate the reservoirs created by dams, which slow their journey to the ocean from three weeks to three months, making them susceptible to predators and warm water temperatures. Reservoirs also flood the gravel bars where salmon spawn. Studies suggest that each dam kills 10 percent of migrating smolts. And hatcheries, designed to offset the impact of dams, introduce genetically inferior fish that compete with wild salmon for food and space.

Five Crows and others argue that while a few incorrigible sea lions might have to be eliminated, the best way to deal with them is to increase the number of fish, and that means dealing in some fashion with dams. "We'd still lose fish to sea lions," says Jim Martin, the salmon adviser to former Governor John Kitzhaber. "But if we're marching toward salmon recovery overall, that's OK."

Of particular concern are four dams on the lower Snake River built between 1960 and 1975 to make Lewiston, Idaho—465 miles (748 kilometers) inland—a port. Until then Idaho had produced half of the Chinook salmon in the Columbia Basin. The dams generate less than 5 percent of the electricity used in the Northwest, they provide no flood control, and they supply irrigation to fewer than 20 farms. "We basically built four too many dams," says Martin, who, like an increasing number of experts, advocates breaching those dams.

Last April the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a lower court's ruling that the Bush Administration's latest salmon recovery plan is woefully inadequate, criticizing particularly the government's curious contention that dams are a natural part of the landscape. James Redden, the federal district court judge in Portland overseeing the case, has ordered increased dam spills to help migrating smolts, and he has warned that if the government's next recovery plan fails to accomplish what the Endangered Species Act requires, he will take "more dramatic actions." Observers have interpreted that to mean that Redden might be willing to take control of the Columbia basin's hydropower system, in the same way that judges took over school districts that failed to integrate in the 1970s.

Five Crows and I arrive at Celilo village, where we're met by a barking dog and a steady wind. The community consists of a handful of rickety clapboard houses and trailers with sheet plastic for windows. Several have no electricity or plumbing, Five Crows tells me. "Can you imagine, a place that was once so important, a center of trade and culture, being reduced to this?" he asks. Before the dam was built, apparently, you could hear the roar of Celilo Falls for miles around. Now all we hear is the roar of I-84. 

■ ■ ■ ■ ■

Six and a half days after leaving Newport, C319 arrived back at Bonneville, ready to dig in. He stuffed himself for two weeks, until the spring Chinook season ended. Matt Tennis subsequently spotted him on the dock in Astoria, the king of all porkers. I had already left Oregon, but Tennis sent me a most amazing photograph. Looking damn near immobile, C319 is so wide he almost completely obscures two regular-size sea lions lying behind him. Tennis longed to capture and weigh the beast, but C319 stayed only a day before heading south to California for the breeding season. The tagging team did succeed in catching C404, the scourge of Bonneville Dam. But they released him. "We knew he wouldn't go back to the dam, because the season was over," says Tennis.

As for C319, he stopped off in Cape Argo, Oregon, and then Cape Mendocino, in northern California, before hauling out onto San Miguel Island, one of the two large sea lion rookeries in the Channel Islands. A few days later he cruised about 75 miles (121 kilometers) south to San Nicholas Island, the other large rookery, where Tennis assumes he holds breeding territory. Three days after that the tagging team lost satellite contact with him.

We can only speculate what may have happened to him. Maybe he ran afoul of some surly fishermen. Maybe he wound up in the belly of a great white or an orca. Or maybe C319's satellite tag just slipped off into the ocean and he's living the fat, happy life of a sea lion.

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