COLUMBIA RIVER - Saturday during a sports crab fishing trip at the mouth of the Columbia River a pair of humongous seals spotted floats marking two recently set open pots. They systematically relieved the rings of most of the visual bait placed in our pots.

The shiny black creatures then surfaced, seemingly to watch the fishermen's reaction, before swimming off toward another set of floats a couple of hundred yards to the east. Fifteen minutes later the people fishing those pots left in disgust, their bait being stripped as well.

According to an Associated Press report our experience is not unique. Columbia River smelt, salmon and sturgeon are being gobbled up by hungry seals and sea lions at an alarming rate.

Bruce Crookshanks, a Cowlitz County commercial fisherman, said "When smelt were in the Cowlitz River recently a pack of 10 sea lions swooped down and blew the smelt right off the spawning beds."

Seals and sea lions are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"We've got a major predator problem," Crookshanks said. "The states need to raise Cain with the feds. We've got these critters going hog-wild."

Jim Wells, president of Salmon for All, an Astoria-based commercial fishing group, echoed Crookshanks' remarks.

"There is no sense even trying to catch salmon downstream of the Astoria Bridge because of the marine mammal predation."

Volunteer commercial fishermen test-netting for spring Chinook salmon with state observers on board on Wednesday and Sunday caught and released one salmon and one steelhead in 12 to 16 drifts according to Wells.

"Sea lions were throwing three salmon around the boat last night," he said. "You can't fish around Astoria because of the seals and sea lions. The tribes, commercial, and sports fishermen need to form a coalition (to address the problem)," Wells concluded.

The local sports fishermen trying to lure a crab or two to their bait-robbed pots might agree.

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