On Friday, May 4, my wife and I stopped at the East Moring Basin on the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon, to see the sea lions who spend the daytime hours hauled out on one of the floating docks there. It’s always a treat to watch their antics and to hear the raucous roaring of competitive bulls mouthing off to anyone who might try to wriggle in and crowd their personal space. As expected we heard bellowing as soon as we arrived, but this time the sea lions had something serious to protest: an unfortunate herd-mate had been trapped and was being held down tightly and tormented by a group of strange and menacing two-leggers wearing orange raingear, one of whom pulled out a hot iron and repeatedly branded the restrained sea lion. As the victim struggled, acrid smoke from his burning flesh drifted for a hundred yards across the harbor.
The searing pain of the branding may have been temporary, but now the sea lion is branded in the figurative sense of the word as well, and his troubles are just beginning. With the numbers viciously burned onto the animal’s back, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife thus has a clever way to recognize him. Later, they will decide whether or not to add him to their annual hit list of 92 sea lions they plan to kill if they reach the man-made dam that impedes the ancient migration route of spawning salmon.
It speaks volumes about the trusting nature of sea lions that they are willing to return to Astoria year after year. Since its establishment in 1811 as a hub for the booming, bloody fur trade, Astoria has been the scene of countless crimes against marine animals, including sea lions, who were killed along the Oregon coast by the thousands—exclusively for lamp oil.
Charles M. Scammon—whaler, sealer, mariner and infamous discoverer and exploiter of the gray whale birthing lagoons in Baja California—devoted a chapter to sea lions in his book, The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America: Together with an account of the American Whale-Fishery. He begins that chapter with the lines, “Among the numerous species of marine mammalia found upon the Pacific coast of North America, none excite more interest than the sea lion;” Scammon goes on to describe an average day in the life of the pitiless sealers, and the last day ever for a group of sea lions. “On the south coast of Santa Barbara Island was a plateau, elevated less than a hundred feet above the sea, stretching to the brink of a cliff that overhung the shore, and a narrow gorge leading up from the beach, through which the animals crawled to their favorite resting-place. Several unsuccessful attempts had been made to take them; but, at last, a fresh breeze commenced blowing directly from the shore, and prevented their scenting the hunters, who landed some distance from the rookery, then cautiously advanced, and suddenly, yelling and flourishing muskets, clubs, and lances, rushed up within a few yards of them, while the pleading creatures, with lolling tongues and glaring eyes, were quite overcome with dismay, and remained nearly motionless. At last, two overgrown males broke through the line formed by the men, but they paid the penalty with their lives before reaching the water. A few moments passed, when all hands moved slowly toward the rookery, which had slowly retreated. This maneuver is called “turning them” and, when once accomplished, the disheartened creatures appear to abandon all hope of escape, and resign themselves to their fate. The herd at that time numbered 75, which were soon dispatched by shooting the largest ones, and clubbing and lancing the others, save for one young sea lion, which they spared to ascertain whether it would make any resistance by being driven over the hills beyond. The poor creature only moved along through the prickly pears that covered the ground, when compelled by his cruel pursuers; and, at last, with an imploring look and writhing in pain, it held out its fin-like arms, which were pierced with thorns, in such a manner as to touch the sympathy of the barbarous sealers who put the sufferer out of its misery with the stroke of a heavy club.”
Scammon ends his chapter with the prediction that the Pacific Coast sea lions “…will soon be exterminated by the deadly shot of the rifle, or driven away to less accessible haunts.” Today the few sea lions who have managed to hold on are again under attack, this time for the crime of daring to survive despite industrial scale over-fishing depleting their only food source.