OLYMPIA, Wash. - People watching hatchery chinook salmon swim past the Olympia waterfront often shriek with joy when a hungry seal zips by chasing its dinner. The cute animals are definite crowd pleasers, but their pinniped cousins, Steller sea lions, don't get the same reaction when they feast on protected Northwest salmon.
That is one reason Washington and Oregon State Fish and Wildlife agencies are asking the federal government to remove Steller sea lions from the Endangered Species List.
They also say the Stellers have made an amazing comeback from their dwindling numbers a few decades ago.
"We really enjoy coming down here and watching the salmon and the seals," said spectator Marvin Max.
Hungry sea mammals, seals and sea lions look forward to fall too. This interaction can create a delicate balance for state wildlife managers charged with protecting both endangered salmon and sea lions.
"That's sort of a classic example of where you're trying to protect a couple of different creatures under the Endangered Species Act and it turns out they interact in ways that don't always work well," said Bill Tweit, Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife.
There are two main species of sea lions on the West Coast - California and Steller. Both are protected under the Marine Mammal Act, but only Stellers are on the more restrictive Endangered Species list.
Washington State Fish and Wildlife scientists say Steller sea lions have made a comeback from the dwindling numbers a few decades ago.
"We think the total number of animals including Alaska is near historic highs," said Tweit.
Delisting sea lions would give the state the opportunity to capture and move sea lions when they threaten endangered salmon.
Remember Herschel, the California sea lion with the insatiable appetite for salmon going through the Ballard Locks? His case led to changes that allowed fish managers to capture and move problem sea lions.
The state wants the same freedom with Stellers and says a suggested five-year waiting period for delisting is a waste of time.
"I think we should find a happy medium so everybody survives," said Max.
So far The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has resisted efforts to delist the Stellers, but has agreed to study the request.
NOAA has suggested a five-year study period which state leaders say is a waste of time. They say the science is clear, Stellers are reaching all-time high numbers in coastal waters, and it's time to celebrate that by removing them from the Endangered Species list.
The final decision may lie with former Washington Governor and current Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.