SEATTLE — As salmon populations dwindle in Puget Sound, natural predators from killer whales to bald eagles are on the hunt for the precious calories the fish bring.
But some predators are taking more than ever.
Seals and sea lions have hunted salmon for eons. And as their numbers in the Puget Sound area increase, they're taking more food than they have in the past 100 years.
Q13 News teamed up with Long Live the Kings to take a look at predator mammals, and how much salmon they're eating.
One species gains, but another slips
David Trout, the Natural Resources Director for the Nisqually Tribe, has no hesitation: From fishing to tourism; culture to history; one Northwest species reigns supreme.
"I think the salmon is the most important species in the Northwest."
Trout has worked hard to increase salmon numbers in the Nisqually Delta. For the most part he's winning, noticing a tremendous increase in the survival of Chinook salmon and steelhead.
But the state is none too lucky. By putting acoustic tags on young salmon called smolts, researchers have discovered 92 percent of young fish were dying by the time they reached Port Angeles; a gateway to the ocean.
Trout and others worked together to determine at least one cause of the high mortality rates:
Specifically, marine mammals like seals and sea lions.
What are Pinnipeds and why do they matter?
Researchers confirmed some carnivorous mammals, such as seals and sea lions, were eating a large amount of salmon.
Of course, pinnipeds have been around snacking on salmon for ages. It's what they do.
What is new, however, is the amount of pinnipeds in the Sound. The wildly successful Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibited the hunting or killing of any marine mammal. It brought seal and sea lion numbers in the Puget Sound from 1,000 in the mid 70's up to 12,000 in recent years.
Non-native species have even moved into the area.
"We have steller sea lions moving into the Puget Sound that we have seen before," Trout said. "The California sea lions have located here as well."
Seals and sea lions eat about 10 percent of their body weight every day, so for some steller sea lions that could mean 50 pounds of salmon each day.
It's currently illegal to cull the pinniped population in the area. It's also unpopular. They're cute, have brown eyes and are well-loved by children and all.
Eating salmon is a learned behavior in only certain families of pinnipeds, Trout said. Targeting specific seals that eat salmon is preferable to going after a wide-range of animals. Opening up and improving salmon habit is paramount. We have to put in the work.
"If we just take our foot off the throat of these fish, they'll do amazing things and they'll recover," Trout said. "But we have to give them a chance."