Herschel Walker, you know about; but Herschel the sea lion? Herschel, a 750-pound Zalophus californianus, made his first splash in the winter of 1984-85. He is the sort of lovable pinniped you have seen in the circus, balancing a beach ball on his nose. But Herschel achieved celebrity status in the Seattle area by virtue of his prodigious ability to eat steelhead, the seagoing branch of the rainbow-trout clan.
Herschel was an opportunist who found a free lunch at Seattle's Ballard Locks, the man-made barrier to steelhead migrating to Lake Washington and their spawning grounds. All Herschel had to do to get a snack was trap a fish up against the dam as the steelhead sought the fish ladder that would afford them entry into the lake. This sea lion could have had it all, if he had not been so greedy. However, in that winter Herschel, along with a buddy or two, ate 59% of the world's only major urban steelhead run. People began to call for his sleek head.
Washington State Department of Wildlife agents, in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service, tried underwater firecrackers known as seal bombs, which Herschel and his accomplices, though initially frightened, quickly recognized as bluffs. The bureaucrats came back with an "acoustic harassment device," which made lots of noises but didn't deter Herschel. Chaser boats were next, but the sea lions easily eluded them. The men deployed an entangling net, but no sea lions were caught in it. Fish laced with lithium chloride were tossed into the water to make Herschel sick. Herschel got sick—for five days. Then he resumed eating steelhead. Herschel & Co. ate 42% of the 1986-87 steelhead run.
In 1988-89, a net barrier was placed near the fish ladder, but Herschel and his legions—20 to 30 other sea lions by this time—tore it to shreds. Two of them drowned in the effort—the first casualties of the Sea Lion War, as the media called it. There would be more.
In the late winter of '89, government agents captured 39 sea lions. When the first four were anesthetized, two died. The survivors, including Herschel, were trucked to the Long Beach Peninsula, 250 nautical miles south. But that's an easy swim for a guy who migrates from California to British Columbia every summer. Herschel returned, and so did 28 of his friends. They started in on the steelhead again. A bill cleared the state senate—meaningless in light of the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the killing of such mammals by government agents—giving wildlife officials permission to kill sea lions. Soon afterward, a telephone rang at the Ballard Locks: "For every sea lion that is shot," said a muffled voice, "we will kill one of your employees."
This winter the Department of Wildlife authorized the use of rubber-tipped arrows shot from crossbows to discourage the steelhead slaughter, and it will continue deporting male seals and planting tainted fish. "We have gone through the cheap and low-risk options," says Bob Byrne, regional information officer for the Department of Wildlife. "Now we're getting into more expensive and high-risk options."
What if none of these efforts works? Should a protected ocean mammal be allowed to become a threat to an unprotected fish? Some Seattleites, most prominently fishermen, favor the 45-cent solution: high-powered rifle cartridges. However, says Ben Deeble, an ocean ecology campaigner for Greenpeace, "Killing sea lions would be a tragedy for the dead animals; a tragedy for the people of Seattle, who are graced with the presence of an impressive marine predator in the midst of an urban area; and a tragedy for the steelhead, because it would divert attention from the true causes of the fish's decline, like dams, overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution."
Last summer the 16th running of the Seattle Seafair Milk Carton Derby took place. Contestants built boats out of milk cartons and raced them across Green Lake in front of 25,000 spectators. Among the entries was a model of Herschel, nine feet tall and with a steelhead in his mouth, rowed by a group of Boeing employees. The crew soon tired of battling the wind and were towed ashore by derby officials, who assessed the mood of the crowd and gave "Herschel" the grand prize anyway.