Herschel, the Very Hungry Sea Lion
It’s dangerous to blame the decline of one species on a single predator. We humans like to do it anyway.
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On a December day, the view at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks looks like a scene from a film noir. Concrete structures rise from the water, accents on the skyline just a few shades darker than the sky. Like many winter days in Seattle, Washington, the beauty is in the variation of grays, punctuated by dark-green trees. The air smells of salt, with a whiff of fish and bird crap. It is cold enough to see the breath of the workers as they walk from tower to tower, overseeing what are also known as the Ballard Locks.
Opened in 1916, the locks were one of the most ambitious projects of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The artificial channel acts as a passageway for boats moving between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, and separates salt water from fresh. At the same time, the structure forces migrating fish to funnel into a narrow alleyway to start their journey upriver to the streams where they spawn.
The locks were also the stage for the antics of one of the best-known bandits in Seattle history. A sea lion named Herschel, along with his gang of other hungry pinnipeds, ambushed steelhead traveling through the locks to their spawning grounds in the Lake Washington basin in the 1980s and ’90s. When the run crashed, locals were quick to place blame—sea lions were the obvious culprits. Yet the truth is likely more complicated, as it often is. This isn’t the first time—and it won’t be the last time—a marine species has been accused of wrongdoing when it competes with people for a treasured food source.
While California sea lions are found from Baja California, Mexico, to Alaska, they had largely been driven out of Puget Sound by the 1930s, pursued by commercial hunters seeking oil, hides, meat for the pet food market, and male genitals to be used as aphrodisiacs in Chinese medicine. The commercial hunt subsided in the 1940s, but sea lions still had adversaries to contend with—commercial and sport fishermen were allowed to kill them to protect catches. The 1972 federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) finally put an end to the assault, and pinniped populations began to recover.
A few California sea lions began to creep back into northern Puget Sound soon after, migrating north from the Channel Islands. Their population increased about five percent per year. In the 1980s, Herschel was the first to venture all the way to the locks. Initially, people were excited to see the hulking visitor. He seemed so innocent at first. As the story goes, an old fisherman spotted him, saw the long whiskers, and called out (in what I imagine was a typical Scandinavian accent, as most Seattle-area fishermen hail from Sweden or Norway), “Oh hey, that looks like old Herschel that I used to work with down at the docks.” The name stuck and for most people became the generic term for any sea lion around Seattle.
Herschel positioned himself at the ocean-side entrance to the locks where he’d found a bountiful swim-through fast food joint and proceeded to gorge on fish. Soon, other young males that hadn’t yet established harems caught on and journeyed up from California with Herschel to join in the annual feast.
Steelhead is the same species as rainbow trout, but with salmon-like tendencies— historically they’ve often been considered a salmon. While rainbow trout dwell solely in fresh water, steelhead migrate to and from the ocean like chinook, coho, chum, pink, and sockeye salmon. Yet unlike most salmon, steelhead can live to spawn more than once. Herschel and his pals would show up just as the steelhead began fighting their way through the locks in mid-November and would stay through March.
A picture at the locks’ visitor center from 1985 shows a glossy, fat sea lion labeled Herschel. His mouth is agape while he swallows an equally pinguid steelhead. At nearly half a tonne, he looks like he doesn’t care what you think about him. He looks like the Notorious B.I.G., ready to take on the west coast, gobbling through fish like a rapper blows through money. A newspaper account from 1985 says Herschel could kill 13 fish in an hour and 20 minutes—that’s about a fish every six minutes. When he was full, Herschel would rip the eggs out of the females, leaving the rest to float away. Skip the nigiri, straight to the roe.
By then, wildlife managers had begun to panic about the sea lions’ impact. “A fat, sassy California sea lion nicknamed Herschel is being blamed for the devastation of an entire run of steelhead trout, one of the most popular game fish in the Pacific Northwest,” the LA Times declared in 1985. The MMPA prohibited killing the pinnipeds, but wildlife managers began working through every non-lethal deterrent they could imagine.
They tried firing off underwater firecrackers (also known as seal bombs), which send out painful blast waves that can be felt for kilometers underwater. The sea lions fled, but returned as soon as the explosions stopped, and eventually they learned to avoid getting hit by swimming erratically. (The bombs also harm other marine life like whales and dolphins.) Workers installed an underwater speaker system to blare high-pitched pinging sounds to annoy the animals, but Herschel and his gang habituated to it.
An audio track of squeaks and chirps from killer whales, which prey on sea lions, didn’t work either, nor did a life-size fiberglass killer whale called Fake Willy that floated in the water column. The wildlife managers next tried feeding the animals steelhead stuffed full of lithium chloride, a chemical that makes sea lions vomit but won’t kill them. They quickly learned to associate humans in yellow suits with bad-tasting fish and avoided the people altogether. A barrier net strung up at the base of the locks just shifted the buffet a bit farther out to sea. Later, they tried shooting the animals with rubber-tipped arrows to no avail.
“Sea lions are very, very smart. Like, as smart as the smartest dog you know,” says Selina Heppell, who heads the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University and helped create the killer whale recording to scare Herschel when she was a high school student. “They habituate to about any behavioral deterrent.”
The sea lions kept on coming and kept on eating. In 1986, the Seattle Times trumpeted, “It’s the return of ‘Herschel’ and the good old boys—those wandering California sea lions that are arriving earlier, staying later, and dining out more frequently. Pass the salmon and steelhead, please.” In 1982, 2,575 steelhead, Washington’s state fish, had swum through the locks; in the fall of 1988, only 686 were counted.
Public opinion had turned against Herschel and his posse by the time Brent Norberg became responsible for their management in 1989 as the marine mammal coordinator for the northwest region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The seasonal Puget Sound California sea lion population had swelled in the preceding decade, fluctuating between 300 and more than 1,000—and people were demanding action. “At the time, there was a big push to try and eradicate sea lions in Puget Sound because there was a general feeling that all the animals in the sound were involved [in overexploiting steelhead at the locks],” says Norberg, who retired in 2016. “But that wasn’t so.”
While all sea lions at the locks were known as Herschel in the media initially, Norberg and his NOAA colleagues assigned numbers and used physical characteristics to identify the animals that were causing trouble. Humpback had a signature hump. Fang had a broken tooth. And Blue Eye? He was blind. Herschel was the biggest, estimated between 300 and 400 kilograms. Next, they used traps to capture the animals and tag them or place a large numbered brand in the middle of their backs. By identifying individuals, the scientists were able to prove that only a fraction—perhaps as few as three percent—of the sea lions in Puget Sound were wolfing down steelhead at the locks. The rest were likely eating steelhead elsewhere in the area—just not as voraciously.
Before Norberg’s research, desperate wildlife managers had captured 39 sea lions from Shilshole Bay (just outside the ship canal leading to the locks) and dropped them off along the outer coast of Washington State in 1988; 29 of the animals returned within two weeks (the quickest swam back in just four days). The following year, trucks carried six sea lions down to Southern California. They returned in a month. Wildlife managers were running out of options.
Herschel began to take on a mythical status. Many people still believe that the sea lion and his posse beat the truck returning from California, says Jay Wells, former visitor center manager at the locks—though whether Herschel was actually one of the animals trucked away is unclear. “It’s just one of the stories that develop as the mythology deepens,” says Wells. “There’s no way the animal returned that quickly unless he was swimming at 80 miles per hour [129 kilometers per hour].” Sea lions can swim in burst speeds up to 40 kilometers per hour, but generally cruise at around 17 kilometers per hour.
The steelhead continued to spiral. By 1992, the run had dwindled to 184 fish. The all-you-can-eat buffet had become a bust, and only a few sea lions showed up that fall. Herschel was a no-show. Maybe, husky and hale, he had found a harem out in the Pacific. Maybe he died somewhere. Maybe some concerned citizen put a target on his back (whisperings about sea lion assassination persist).
While many Seattleites cursed the sea lions, others rooted for the remaining animals. Animal rights activists tried to stop wildlife managers from tracking and harassing the sea lions. After one activist climbed onto a trap and handcuffed himself to the bars, police cut him loose, took him to the station, and then released him, much like the sea lions.
Assistant lockmaster Scott Diehl, who has worked at the locks for decades, points out there was no winning: if they didn’t do anything about the problem, the fish were gone. If they tried to take action, activists balked. Says Diehl: “We were getting death threats.”
There was a time when a visitor to the locks could descend the cement steps to the viewing room and press against the thick Plexiglas to see the silvery bodies of steelhead struggle up the entrance to the fish ladder. The fish were once so thick they looked like a silver hurricane. Now, that run is completely gone. The designated fish counters saw an average of four steelhead enter the Cedar River for spawning each year between 2010 and 2014, and not a single one since. And not a single steelhead has been spotted entering Lake Washington since 2009.
It’s undeniable that sea lions impacted the steelhead population by capitalizing on the advantage afforded by the locks. Wildlife managers estimate the animals consumed between 42 and 65 percent of the total steelhead run between 1986 and 1992. Yet steelhead had been in decline in parts of Puget Sound long before Herschel boldly poked his whiskered snout up to the foreign structure and discovered nirvana. Models suggest that the historical steelhead run in Puget Sound maxed out somewhere between 409,000 and 930,000 fish. The fishery likely peaked in 1895 with 204,600 steelhead caught, but such a heavy harvest was unsustainable. Just three years later, the Washington State Fish Commission estimated that the run had dropped by half.
When predatory animals go from being a rarity to a commonplace, people struggle to adjust—and it’s especially hard if we watch them compete for depleting resources. Sea lions often consume their meals on the surface, which is unfortunate for their public image. “We tend to want to blame things on the surface, but would anyone think to start blaming hake, pollock, sculpins?” says Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit in the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. Those are all species that may be feeding on juvenile fish. “We tend to come up with simple narratives: when salmon are down, it must be the fault of something we see.”
Sea lions share their scapegoat status with numerous other fish eaters. In Atlantic Canada, cod stocks have barely begun to rebound from collapse in the 1990s despite a fishing moratorium—and the fishing community blames cod-hungry gray seals. The Canadian government responded in 2012 with a bounty system designed to wipe 70,000 gray seals out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, though a 2011 study by Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologists found that seals have been framed: the slow recovery is more likely linked to a shortage of capelin, the cod’s primary food.
Killer whales, too, have been in the crosshairs. In the early 1960s, the Canadian fisheries department mounted a .50-caliber machine gun along Seymour Narrows north of Campbell River, British Columbia, with the intent of shooting whales to save more salmon for anglers. No shots were ever fired, says Trites. But that wasn’t due to human restraint: as the story goes, it was because no whales happened to come by that summer, and the plan was aborted.
The role whales play in declining fish stocks has also been used as justification for countries such as Iceland, Norway, and Japan to continue hunting whales. This year, Norway announced it would raise its quota of whales to 1,278 from 999, despite an international moratorium on the practice.
Cormorants, river otters, mink, and salmon sharks are a few of the other animals that have been scapegoats. And, more recently, seals have been labeled villains in the case of the disappearing chinook salmon in British Columbia, with some people demanding a cull while overlooking the myriad other factors in the decline—warming waters, pollution, and fishing pressures, for example.
Hondo Goes to the Big House
After a frustrating decade spent harassing the sea lions at the locks, wildlife managers returned to discussions about lethal tactics. The MMPA did have a provision to allow nuisance animals to be killed, but only when the entire species up and down the US west coast had reached its optimum sustainable population—which for sea lions was around 250,000 and hadn’t happened at the time.
In 1994, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote an amendment that allowed “lethal taking of individually identifiable pinnipeds which are having a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of salmonid fishery stocks.” Unlike most laws pertaining to wildlife culls, this language is oddly specific, targeting the Herschels of the world.
There were still hurdles. The state had to apply for authorization from the federal government, which it quickly did for the three biggest remaining offenders at the locks: Hondo, Big Frank, and Bob.
The feds formed a task force of 21 members to consider the request. A third of the task force argued against lethal removal, saying the sea lions were being unfairly targeted. They reasoned that there was too much emphasis on sea lion predation and not enough on other factors affecting steelhead throughout their life cycle—factors like “poor fisheries management, habitat degradation, and poor lock construction and operation.” Yet those complex problems were more challenging to address and intertwined with regional economics, so the dissenters were overruled, and the amendment passed.
By then, only a few stubborn sea lions still frequented the locks—the steelhead population was down to 70 fish. Still, Hondo was captured in January 1995 and held for the duration of the steelhead run to test the effect of removing a predator from the system. (Hondo was accused of eating 60 percent of the steelhead run by himself, plus the managers were unable to capture the other rogue pinnipeds.) While he was confined in a sea pen, the steelhead making it through the locks increased from 70 to 126.
The small experiment showed the task force that removing sea lions could benefit steelhead. But despite the grant of lethal authority, the sea lions were never killed because of pressure from activists and clemency granted by then-Vice President Al Gore. Instead, the last three were trapped and exiled via FedEx to Sea World in Orlando, Florida, in May 1996.
For animals used to diving in chilly water for steelhead, it must have been a very strange existence. Hondo died of a massive infection nine months after arriving in Florida. The other two lasted a few more years. While in Sea World, the trio of bandits did make a lasting impression. They were put in a California coast display with a wave generator and a dozen females. The genealogy of Herschel’s gluttonous gang likely continues today; maybe their offspring are even waving to a Florida crowd.
“They were like cartoon animals, gulping the fish whole,” recalls Diehl with a dry laugh, as we walk around the locks.
He once had a three-meter boat he’d launch over a bank to troll for steelhead near Redmond, on the eastern side of Lake Washington, before it was the home of Microsoft. “The fish were all up there, and they were big fish.” Those days are over, and in Diehl’s mind, the sea lions are squarely to blame. In all, sea lions cavorted around the locks for 15 years; Herschel was there for more than a decade, long enough to do damage.
We wander between two faded buildings to visit Fake Willy, the fiberglass killer whale. Listeners from a local radio station pitched in $3,000 of the cost to purchase it from a Scottish fish farmer (who used replicas like it to scare away seals). Fake Willy was on chains, and workers would raise and lower it in the water like a marionette. I’m not surprised that with its strange proportions and vacant eyes, the whale replica did little to ward off sea lions.
Herschel’s story of gluttony has an unexpected upside: with such easy access to their subjects over so many years, scientists transformed their understanding of sea lions. Jeffries says that before the animals turned up at the locks, no one had handled large adult California sea lions.
“We had to develop the technology, tools, and equipment to catch them, mark them, and handle them—something that had never been done before,” Diehl says. They also weighed them and found the animals to be much larger than previously thought. “If you look at a mammalogy book from the 1980s or 1990s, it’ll tell you that adult male California sea lions are 800 pounds [363 kilograms],” says Jeffries. “We were routinely catching animals well over 1,000 pounds [454 kilograms].” That’s useful knowledge when estimating how much biomass an animal will consume.
In a densely packed 48-page report to Congress in 1999, Jeffries and his colleagues shared their main lessons. The primary one? Let agencies have control of lethal removal, so they can act faster when pinnipeds start to exploit dams, locks, or other structures where endangered fish are forced to congregate.
For his part, Jeffries doesn’t blame sea lions for the demise of the Seattle steelhead. When asked what else we learned, he sighs heavily: “We learned that the Ballard Locks are really good mechanisms for feeding sea lions,” he says. “We’ve done everything we can to make [steelhead’s] life miserable.” Rather than looking at the predators on the surface, perhaps we humans should be looking in a mirror. A bursting population of people in coastal cities like Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, meant that estuaries and streams where steelhead once lived all got filled with concrete, with dire consequences for the fish.
At the same time, the population of sea lions on the US west coast has more than quintupled since the MMPA was passed, from 50,000 to perhaps 275,000 today (with a peak of 306,000 in 2012). In many cases, those animals returned to environments that are drastically different from the ones that existed in generations past—and are competing for less available food.
“In some respects, sea lions have just learned to be first at the buffet,” says Trites. If sea lions were removed, other species would be ready to move into their place and eat the fish.
Dams and locks are understandably attractive for animals that have to eat constantly to stay alive. Sea lions eat five to seven percent of their weight in food each day—that’s roughly 18 kilograms of fish and squid for a typical adult male, not factoring in food availability and seasonal fluctuations. In fact, although the locks in Seattle are empty of sea lions now, up the Columbia River, along the border of Washington and Oregon, pinnipeds are involved in another conflict. As many as 195 California sea lions have been spotted at the Bonneville Dam, and they gobbled up nine percent of the steelhead run there last year.
Humans, of course, are also responsible for taking more than our share from the ocean. In Herschel’s gaping maw, we can see our own insatiable hunger for seafood. Species that end up thriving in human-built environments—animals such as sea lions in the water and raccoons, gulls, crows, and coyotes on land—are often labeled as pests. We dislike them, maybe because we are like them.
When it comes to sea lions versus humans, ultimately, the question is: who gets to eat first? If wild fish stocks continue to decline, where will we rank the benefits of having pickup-sized sea lions in our environment? The empty locks in Seattle provide an indication. What, then, are all the hungry Herschels of the world to do?