Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

For visitors passing through the area, one of Crescent City’s more popular roadside attractions has to be docks along Anchor Way where tourists photograph piles of barking California sea lions year round.

However, some may be surprised when looking at photos later to find one or more sea lions carry the mark of a large number branded into their skin. Only a few branded animals have shown up in Crescent City over the years.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife uses branding to identify, track and monitor sea lions that swim up Oregon Rivers and feed on salmon near dams and fish ladders.

According to a 2013 NOAA Fisheries report entitled “Pinniped branding on the West Coast,” researchers in the Pacific Northwest also use branding to mark harbor seals, Stellar sea lions and California Sea Lions.

“Permanent marking allows scientists to gather information over a long period of time from known individuals in a population,” the report reads. “Branded animals can be easily observed from a distance without disturbing them or other animals around them, and because the marks are permanent, the animals can be followed throughout their entire life.”

Karen Helms at the Northwest Marine Mammal Center said her staff has seen a few branded sea lions over the past few years. She said a couple were brought in for health reasons while another was spotted in the area last summer. She said the branded numbers are usually the result of long-term research projects where other forms of tagging may not be feasible.

One animal, whose X693 brand is easily visible with binoculars or a telephoto lens, has been seen lying on the docks in Crescent City twice since at least September.

Pinniped data

Pinnipeds is the term for seals, sea lions and walruses. According to National Geographic, the California Sea Lion can live up to 30 years and reach weights of up to 860 pounds. While they plop and waddle over land and docks, they can reach up to 25 miles per hour in the water.

Brian Wright, a project leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said X693, the sea lion hanging out on the docks near Crescent City, was branded by his group on Feb. 8 2017 in Astoria. Wright did not have further records but the 2016 OFW report said animals marked with an X were removed from the area under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The section authorizes the lethal removal of sea lions having a noted negative impact on salmonid populations.

Astoria is just over 300 miles north of Crescent City, which, according to Wright, is not far for a sea lion to travel.

“Some of them travel thousands of miles per year,” he said, noting that they are opportunistic and may linger in places where they find a good food supply.

Wright said he also has personal experience with the branding process. He said it has been going on since 1997 and populations of sea lions have been making their way up Oregon rivers to the nearest dams. He said sea lions began showing up in Portland’s Willamette River, where they have been eating endangered salmon.

“We needed to learn more about where they were coming from and where they were going,” he said, noting that OFW applied for federal permission to remove sea lions lethally at the Bonneville Dam.

However, both the salmon and sea lions are federally protected, by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Wright said under narrow circumstances, OFW can apply to kill certain sea lions and circumvent the MMPA. He said the branding helps the department identify the worst offenders.

The branding process

An internet search of relevant words will likely bring up videos taken by various groups which show sea lions being branded near Astoria in 2012. One of those groups is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit based on the San Juan Island in Washington.

The society has claimed that the branding has led to the death of some sea lions. It also claimed in 2013 that Sea Lions eat .04 percent to 4.2 percent of salmon in the Columbia River each year while human fishing takes 17 percent.

“Our mission is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species,” its website states. However, a request for information had not been returned as of press time.

Jim Milbury, a media relations officer with NOAA Fisheries in southern California, said the program was started in the 1980s and prior to initiating it, studies needed to done to determine any impacts on sea lion mortality, as a result of branding. He said a study showed the practice of branding had no effect on how long the animals live.

According to a 2013 NOAA Fisheries report entitled “Pinniped branding on the West Coast” anesthesia can be used during branding but that process poses a risk the their survival.

“Hot branding works by destroying the hair follicles and burning the epidermis, and studies indicate that the animals may feel pain and stress during branding,” the report reads.

“Well, first, I’d like to say we understand,” said Wright. “All the work we do is reviewed and approved by the State Veterinary Office.” He said such work done by other agencies also must follow procedures and undergo state review.

“We try to minimize the effects as much as possible,” he said, noting he has taken part in the trapping and branding process. “These animals don’t seem to react strongly to it and most are back in the traps the following day. However, it would be disingenuous to say it doesn’t hurt at all.” He said all the branded animals in Northern California are males.

Milbury said NOAA still uses branding to monitor sea lions around the San Miguel Islands, west of Los Angeles. He said sea lions there are branded under anesthesia and then released into the saltwater.

Wright said the branding program in the Astoria area may be winding down to a halt soon.

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