Backcasts archive: Through Feb. 9, 2007

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    posted Feb. 9, 2007

    Troubles with salmon-eating sea lions? Got your solution right here, folks

    Imagine being on an elementary-school field trip in the Northwest to view salmon through a fish-ladder window. You are a chaperone and have just told little Johnny about the critical role this fish plays in nature, angling and as a food source for us.

    Here comes the first salmon. But, wait, it seems to be dragging a half-ton sea monster by the tail, the young lad states.

    No, Johnny, you tell him, that's just another big, ol', nasty sea lion dining on salmon, which it can do anytime as it pleases.

    Johnny's in tears, and more folks — from angry anglers to politicians in two states to salmon lovers — are crying foul over this increasingly common site at Bonneville Dam on the mighty Columbia River.

    If you take a look at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pinniped-deterrents Web site, you will quickly understand the magnitude of the issue.

    Salmon predation by sea lions has just about doubled each year since 2002, according to Corps record, jumping from an estimated 0.4 percent of the total number of salmon passing through Bonneville from Jan. 1 to May 31 to 3.4 percent in 2005, the last year records are available. That's close to 3,000 salmon out of some 82,000 for the 2005 observation period.

    And that's just salmon. From Feb. 10-March 27, 2006, Corps observers witnessed sea lions munch down on 233 sturgeon, 167 steelhead and 185 other fish.

    Indeed, fishery folks are understandably alarmed by the risk sea lions pose to brood-stock sturgeon, which seem apparently not to have figured out they have a predator besides people.

    You can see what sturgeon are facing for yourself right here on this remarkable video from KOIN.com, the Web site for a Portland news station.

    Officials are doing what they can to stop the stealer Steller and California sea lions, from installing exclusion gates (bars at the entrance to the fish ladders) to more aggressive deterrents, such as rubber bullets, big firecrackers and underwater acoustics. But even Barry Manilow played at piercing decibels isn't doing the trick. (Kidding, Barry; we still love ya.)

    The Corps, fish and wildlife agencies from Oregon and Washington and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission do what they can to harass the sea lions in various hazing efforts, but nothing seems to work with any real efficiency or permanence.

    The problem is, sea lions are protected by federal law. So you can't just kill them, as much as some would like to. But some of the salmon and steelhead they are munching are endangered species. That's a conundrum if ever we've heard of one.

    Things may be changing, however. The feds now are considering a petition by Washington, Oregon and Idaho to remove or kill the most meddlesome sea lions.

    The bummer is, of course, a final decision probably is at least a year away.

    I have a more immediate solution:

    Put me in the new, wild watercraft that is shaped like a dolphin, repaint it in orca black and white and let me haze the heck out of those unsuspecting sea lions.

    Yep, that's me at the helm of the killer whale-colored Innespace SeaBreacher at the top of the page. (You can see the original, yet-to-be-released craft right here and learn more about it at the Shasta Lake City, Calif.-based manufacturer's Web site.)

    Those Steller and California sea lions soon would be lambs scurrying back to the Pacific with their flippers between their … well, flippers.

    Hey, I'm willing to solve the problem, people, and all it will only cost the agencies involved in the nuisance-mammal management the $50,000 purchase price of the craft and a negotiable operating fee for myself. That's a pittance in the scheme of things, right?

    "That's not a bad idea," said Dan Piazza, 50, of Redding, Calif., project manager on the SeaBreacher, a two-person personal watercraft designed to dip below the surface and "fly underwater."

    "It just might scare those sea lions away so they'd leave them salmon alone."

    Darn tootin' it would, Dan!

    The Innespace product lines are still being tested, and licensing and insuring the units is another issue altogether. "I'm sure insurance is going to be a downfall," Piazza said.

    They won't be on the market "anytime soon," he said. But if and when these machines are ready to go, I'll be ready for those pesky pinnipeds.

    And since time frames for the government are notoriously nebulous, too, I'm betting I'll have the sea-lion situation solved with my killer-whale craft well before the feds … so long as there are no amorous orcas around.


    posted Feb. 8, 2007

    Making a case against wolves … and anything regarding dancing with them

    Gotta say I'm not much of a fan of the op-ed pages. They read too much like legal documents and tend to be bo-ring, or at least that's the way I'm misrepresenting them.

    I'm more of a meat (sports) and potatoes (news) guy. And I'm nice enough before my 90-minute commute to leave some sections of the paper at home (business, features) for my working wife to scour when she's done skimming the important parts.

    Still, I'm thankful that I abscond with the local section, especially on days like today, because that's where the opinions and editorials are buried, and that's where I stumbled onto this gem of a Seattle Times contribution from Treasure State guest columnist Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.

    The well-written shooter sets up his case against wolves by asking Washington-state readers how they would like it if Montana had the political clout to take away our coffee, our beloved Mariners and our public transit — all with federal approval. Yeah, Mr. Marbut, you got my attention, and, yeah, that would totally suck.

    Turns our Marbut feels the same way about the "imposition of wolves in our territory by federal officials and repopulation advocates," he writes.

    We'll let his intriguing prose, impressively featured so prominently by the Seattle Times and titled "Don't mess with Montana's ranching and hunting heritage," take it from here:

    Wolves are very destructive of our culture and our ranching and hunting economy. Our culture and heritage of hunting game animals are so important here that they are enshrined in our Montana Constitution. And raising livestock is not a hobby here — it is not done only to provide a movie set for tourists, but it is a way of life for many of us.

    For a century, hunters in Montana have fostered huntable populations of deer, elk, moose, wild sheep and goats. It is only hunters who have paid millions of dollars and volunteered millions of hours to cultivate our game herds. We think of these herds as a savings account for our children and grandchildren, that we may pass on the traditions of our culture and our heritage to them.

    Without so much as an apology, much less an invitation, outsiders have brought wolves to Montana with the clear intent of feeding them with our carefully nurtured game herds — our savings account for our grandchildren.

    Mr. Marbut apparently is far from alone in taking up his fight against wolves. In fact, wolves are viewed as international annoyances to some.

    We're blogged here recently that the wolf of the wilds, a beast of folklore and mystery in much of Germany, is making a slow comeback in Europe. And in Germany it is a protected species, which has many asking why such a sheep-killing predator shouldn't be in the cross hairs of any upstanding hunter.

    Lobsters are the main thing here, so don't mess with the live displays

    Whole Foods Market announced back in June it would stop selling live lobsters and crabs in the name of "crustacean compassion," the Associated Press reports.

    But apparently it's making an exception in Maine, a state where citizens live for lobster, or least make their livelihoods from the red rascal.

    Lobsters will be displayed live in Portland and kept in private compartments instead of being piled on top of each other in a tank. Store employees also will use a device that zaps the clawed critters with a 110-volt shock to spare them the agony of being boiled alive, according to the AP.

    "We're taking up animal compassion in all species,'' said David Lannon, North Atlantic regional president for the Austin, Texas-based natural foods grocery chain.

    But Maine's lobster fishermen are understandably skeptical.

    They were offended by Whole Foods Market Inc.'s original decision to
    banish live lobsters from its stores. Now they're insulted by its selection of a New Hampshire lobster supplier, the AP reports.

    "When they say they buy local and support local fishermen and farmers, and then they tell us we're doing everything wrong, obviously it doesn't sit very well with us," said Tom Martin, a Portland lobsterman.

    Whole Foods has contracted with Little Bay Lobster Co. of Newington, N.H., to supply lobsters for its 46,000 square-foot store in Portland, Maine, which opens Valentine's Day.

    So while the live displays may be a sweetheart of a deal for lobster fans in Portland, they're a real heartbreaker for Maine's commercial fishermen.


    posted Feb. 7, 2007

    When that shark bites … and sinks your shrimp boat

    He never knew what hit him. You've heard that phrasing before when it comes to car crashes and quarterbacks being blindsided by blitzing linebackers.

    Well, when it comes to sunken shrimp boats, Roger Schmall of Fort Myers, Fla., knows exactly what hit him: a 14-foot bull shark.

    That's right, folks, the Christy Nichole sank off the coast of Fort Myers Beach late last week after
    the shark broke the boat's tail shaft, leaving Schmall and his crew of two at the mercy of the sea
    about 100 miles off the coast, according to the Fort Myers News-Press, which reported the tail, er,
    tale, Monday before it was picked up by the Associated Press.

    "It's pretty scary when you're sitting there and you got all that water coming in," the shrimper with 26 years of experience told the News-Press.

    Schmall didn't mention it, but we're betting the thought of that shark and the others that had been tailing the Christy Nichole for days also was weighing pretty heavy on his mind.

    "That's where they get their food, when we throw our trash over," the skipper said, referring to the discarded catch from the shrimp nets.

    "Now, they're so ferocious, they travel in such big packs."

    Schmall reported that a group (school? gang? mob?) of sharks had been pounding his hull for four days. After the big bull rendered the propeller useless, he radioed for help and the crew was rescued by another vessel some two hours later.

    But the captain would remain with his craft … but only until the weather got the better of his boat and the resulting 6- to 8-foot swells eventually tore off the prop and the vessel's entire back end. After another two hours the Christy Nichole — valued at about $165,000, but worth a whole lot more to Schmall after having operated it for a dozen years — was gone.

    And with it might have gone Schmall's shrimping career, he told the News-Press.

    Big trout troubles brewing at biggest lake

    When the fishery at the largest manmade lake east of the Mississippi is in trouble, Backcasts has to bring it to light here.

    Kentucky's Lake Cumberland, northeast of Nashville, Tenn., is hurting because seepage from the Wolf Creek Dam that holds back its waters has prompted federal engineers to lower it.

    But the project, designed to relieve pressure on the weakened dam and avoid a cataclysmic collapse, according to the Associated Press, has the potential to cause major fish kills. Water temps will rise in the lowered Cumberland River below the dam, putting at serious risk the fishery's rainbows and browns that are planted by a nearby federal hatchery.

    Built in the 1940s and '50s to provide hydroelectric power and control terrible flooding along the river, Wolf Creek Dam has been repaired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers twice previously since the 1960s.

    Quite apart from the trout worries from the drawdown are the financial ramifications of the local businesses that depend on the lake, which attracts 5 million visitors annually, according to the AP.

    From hotels and restaurants to marinas and bait shops, every business that survives on the lake's mighty tourism dollar will be impacted by the repair project, which, alas, is expected to take seven years to complete.

    That's a long, long time to have your business "boat" out of water. But in this case I guess it may even be worse to be a fish in the water.


    posted Feb. 6, 2007

    Does repeal of caviar ban stick a knife in beluga sturgeon?

    A year-old embargo of one of the world's most wonderful delicacies — beluga and two other types of caviar — has ended along with trade bans of the fish eggs, the Associated Press reports.

    A United Nations panel announced yesterday it will permit Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Russia to export 4.15 tons of beluga because the Caspian Sea-bordering countries had improved their monitoring of caviar trading and are expected to release millions of young fish into these waters.

    However, the embargo repeal — considered by the U.N. to be a "small quota" for commercial endeavors — comes with the caviar caveat that additional efforts must be made to improve declining sturgeon stocks, according to the AP.

    Environmentalists were predictably upset with the decision.

    "We view this as another nail in the coffin for this species,'" Julia Roberson of the conservation group Caviar Emptor told the AP.

    "The most recent information that we had was that the populations of beluga sturgeon from 2004 to 2005 had declined by 45 percent, so it's very irresponsible … to be reopening trade."

    There is no doubt that we love our caviar here at Backcasts. But it's definitely a guilty pleasure, and each morsel comes with a spoonful of trepidation: We sure hope the U.N. got it right.

    And if those big, prehistoric denizens in the Caspian Sea fight anything like their white sturgeon cousins in the Columbia River, let's do everything we can to save those bottom-feeding brutes.

    My all-time heaviest fish is a 7½-foot, 300-pounder that took me 90 minutes and every ounce of strength I had to bring in before being released below Bonneville Dam.

    But they come much, much larger, as ESPNOutdoors.com columnist Keith "Catfish" Sutton can tell you in "Hooked to Goliath."

    I even stole these photos from ol' Sutton's read, so you know he's good for something!


    posted Feb. 5, 2007

    Silly rabbit, hasenpfeffer is for people … including, now, the hungry folks of North Korea

    If you could see the size of them you would think them otherworldly. I couldn't secure a photo for you here, but imagine, if you will, the hasenpfeffer one could create from a 23-pound bunny.

    And that's exactly what the government of North Korea apparently has drawn up for a hunger-relief plan for its 23 million citizens, according to the Washington Post. The details are sketchy as to exactly how this will be accomplished, but we do know a few details about the history of the project.

    It seems diplomats at the North Korean Embassy in Berlin had received word of the enormity and fine taste of German gray giants after a retired chauffeur entered a few of his prized rabbits in an agricultural fair here.

    The North Koreans immediately considered the breed their lucky rabbit's foot and approached the breeder, Karl Szmolinsky of Eberswalde, Germany, to consult with them on how to begin raising the brutes — each of which can yield 15 pounds of meat — to feed their masses.

    Szmolinsky agreed, he told the Post, and in December sold some of his best stock and packed up two males and four females, all to fat to hop properly. They were packed up in modified dog carriers and put on a flight for Pyongyang, via Frankfurt and Beijing.

    "They liked what they saw, and they liked how big they were," said Szmolinsky, who's been raising these long-eared monsters since 1964.

    "It's harder than you think to raise them. They need a varied diet, but they have to be fed like pigs, basically, to get that big."

    Apparently that includes lots of hay, veggies and rabbit chow in order to fatten them up enough for the stewpot.

    But you know what they say: Give a man a bunny, feed him for a day; teach a government how to breed gigantic rabbits, and feed 23 million forever … or something like that.

    And if you prefer eel, well, there should be plenty around for years to come

    Let's hear it for our friend the American eel; the federal government has determined that despite a grass-roots effort to save it, it doesn't need to protecting.

    Squeals for eels, hip, hip, hooray, hip, hip, hooray.

    Following a two-year review, at the behest of a Massachusetts janitor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed the eel does not qualify as an endangered species, according to the Associated Press.

    We applaud Tim Watts of Middleborough, Mass., and his brother, Doug, for filing the protection petition in 2004 on behalf of the eel after Tim Watts noticed eels becoming wedged at dams near his best fishing hole.

    But save for problems in a few areas — including in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River area, as well as the Chesapeake Bay, where it tends to be overfished — the eel is doing quite well overall, thank you.

    Eels often are used as bait, but, who knows, perhaps they, too, will be used as a human food source someday. No matter what happens, the Watts brothers want to ensure their survival.

    "If nothing else, it was important to put down a marker to say, 'Here is where someone saw something wrong and here is where someone stood up and said something,'" Tim Watts said. "And no one can say they're surprised in 20 years if the decline continues."

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    About the author: Brett Pauly spent nearly six years editing and publishing ESPNOutdoors.com before moving on to produce the ESPN.com Sports Travel site.
    He is a national award-winning writer and editor with 14 years of experience in the newspaper trade. The Evergreen State of Washington is where he makes his home. Click here to email him.

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