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Herschel the Sea Lion Flees Firecrackers, Returns to Filch Salmon

January 7, 1986 GMT

SEATTLE (AP) _ Underwater firecracker blasts routed Herschel the sea lion from his feeding grounds for a short time Tuesday, but he soon returned to a canal where he and his hungry cohorts have been devouring prize trout.

Game agents started the harassment project before dawn in an attempt to train the wild California sea lions not to fish at locks where migrating steelhead trout, a prized game fish, gather in search of passageways to inland spawning streams.

But less than two hours after an initial pair of explosions forced 600- pound Herschel and a smaller companion to retreat, they were back. A lock operator gave the name Herschel to a sea lion in the canal a few years ago, and this year it was applied to the largest, wiliest animal.

Three game agents then took to a motorized skiff and ran at the sea lions, tossing about half a dozen firecrackers, and apparently scared them off one more time.

″The last we heard they were steaming north at a rapid rate. ... Looks like we gave them a good scare,″ Bob Byrne of the state Game Department said at midday.

Sea lions are smarter than the average house dog, and they should learn to stay away if game agents harass them enough, said Byrne. Agents plan to use the finger-length, waterproofed firecrackers regularly at least for the next week.

″We’re trying to use that (intelligence) to our advantage,″ he said. ″They will learn if we apply it rigorously.″

The goal is to herd the sea lions farther out in Puget Sound where there’s plenty of food and they can ″earn an honest living,″ Byrne said.

Officials are limited in ways they might deal with the sea lions because the mammals are a federally protected species.

Tourists have been entertained by sea lions fishing at the Hiram Chittenden Locks between Puget Sound and the canal, used mostly by pleasure boats, that bisects Seattle and leads to Lake Washington and the Cedar River system.

But game agents are concerned because the number of sea-going steelhead returning to spawn in the Cedar system has been off sharply in recent years. Salmon also use the river but the major concern now is the steelhead run.

This is the first year the game agency has made a serious effort to scare off the sea lions. Agents will watch for them daily through March, when the steelhead migration ends and the sea lions start to head south, Byrne said.

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Game agents who recently watched the animals during three 24-hour stints found they usually show up at the locks at about dawn and leave at sunset, and there were no immediate plans to keep the vigil by night.

But on Monday, five sea lions appeared and spent the night.

″They’ve thrown a curve ball at us,″ Byrne said.

Herschel has been routinely joined at the locks or an adjacent manmade fish ladder by two other sea lions and occasionally by a few others, Byrne said.

But Herschel has the most experience, herding fish to a closed gate in the locks to eat as many as he wants - 16 on one recent day.

Herschel has become a local celebrity. A sign in a nearby condominium says ″Herschel’s Sushi Bar,″ and another keeps score between Herschel and the game agency.

During a day spent watching the sea lions recently, Byrne counted 30 fish caught by at least three sea lions who were ″tearing them up, throwing them out of the water, barking and having a good old time.″

If the sea lions learn to ignore the firecrackers, agents will use a combination of firecrackers and tapes of noises made by killer whales, natural enemies of sea lions, said Jack Smith of the game agency.

Game agents estimate sea lions take an average of about 16 fish per day during the salmon run from December through March.

Since the animals fish constantly during the run, Byrne said, they could easily account for the 1,200 fish missing last year, when the Game Department had hoped 1,600 steelhead would reach upriver spawning grounds. Normally, 4,000 to 5,000 enter the river, but many are lost to fishermen or predators.