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Researchers: Sea lions transmit salmon-eating behaviors like a disease

Columbia Basin Bulletin

Published on December 27, 2016 2:09PM

ODFW Photo
A California sea lion took a Chinook salmon near Bonneville Dam's tailrace in 2004. Researchers now say early intervention is key to stopping sea lions from becoming habituated to this behavior.

ODFW Photo A California sea lion took a Chinook salmon near Bonneville Dam's tailrace in 2004. Researchers now say early intervention is key to stopping sea lions from becoming habituated to this behavior.


A new study used the same kind of models that scientists use to track disease to instead examine how some California sea lions have learned to prey on salmon gathering to ascend fish ladders at Bonneville Dam.

Although sea lions commonly feast on fish, their predation on salmon at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River poses wildlife management challenges. The sea lions that gather on the Columbia each spring are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act while the salmon they are eating are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

In 2008 NOAA Fisheries authorized Oregon, Washington and Idaho wildlife authorities to begin trapping, removing and sometimes euthanizing sea lions shown to repeatedly prey on salmon at the dam. The removal program was designed to reduce impacts on protected salmon.

NOAA Fisheries recently authorized the states to continue the removals over the next five years.

The new study examined the effectiveness of the removal program, employing epidemiological models to assess how the behavior of eating salmon at the dam passes among sea lions.

The research concluded that the removal program has successfully slowed the transmission of the behavior among sea lions, but would have been more effective if it had started sooner.


Intervene early


The findings highlight the need to act early “from both a conservation and management perspective to prevent the spread of a detrimental behavior and to minimize the total number of animals removed,” the scientists wrote in the paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“The earlier you start, the more effective you are at slowing the spread, and the fewer animals you have to remove to make a difference,” said Zachary Schakner, who coauthored the study as a graduate student at UCLA and is now Recreational Fisheries Coordinator in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region.

The states have removed 166 California sea lions since the effort began in 2008, a small fraction of the number of animals that migrate to the Columbia each winter and spring. The states may euthanize sea lions if no permanent holding facility, such as a zoo or aquarium, can be found.

In 2017 NOAA Fisheries will review the last five years of the program, and will take the study findings into account, said Robert Anderson of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region in Portland.

“What was really new was the combination of behavioral ecology with disease ecology to come up with management recommendations that could make the program more effective,” said Michael Buhnerkempe, coauthor of the research and an assistant project scientist at UCLA.

The study examined the association between sea lions known to prey on salmon at Bonneville Dam with other animals that later developed the same behavior, assessing how the behavior passed among animals. The researchers then modeled various strategies for removing sea lions to determine which were most effective and which required the removal of the fewest sea lions.


Quick response would spare sea lions


Just as diseases are easiest to stop when they have affected only a few individuals, so are undesirable wildlife behaviors such as the predation on salmon at Bonneville Dam. The study found that the removal of sea lions would have been more effective, requiring the removal of fewer animals overall, if it had started soon after biologists first realized that sea lions were targeting protected salmon.

“If you can do that, you’re beating it before it has a chance to explode into more of an epidemic,” Buhnerkempe said. “Otherwise it quickly gets out of control.”

The study abstract says, “Socially transmitted wildlife behaviours that create human–wildlife conflict are an emerging problem for conservation efforts, but also provide a unique opportunity to apply principles of infectious disease control to wildlife management.”

As an example, California sea lions “have learned to exploit concentrations of migratory adult salmonids below the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam, impeding endangered salmonid recovery. Proliferation of this foraging behaviour in the sea lion population has resulted in a controversial culling program of individual sea lions at the dam, but the impact of such culling remains unclear.”

To evaluate the effectiveness of current and alternative culling strategies, the researchers “used network-based diffusion analysis on a long-term dataset to demonstrate that social transmission is implicated in the increase in dam-foraging behaviour and then studied different culling strategies within an epidemiological model of the behavioural transmission data.”

The researchers say the study shows “that current levels of lethal control have substantially reduced the rate of social transmission, but failed to effectively reduce overall sea lion recruitment. Earlier implementation of culling could have substantially reduced the extent of behavioural transmission and, ultimately, resulted in fewer animals being culled. Epidemiological analyses offer a promising tool to understand and control socially transmissible behaviours.”



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