One third-grade class at San Francisco’s Lafayette Elementary School wasn’t going to let another California sea lion get shot without its voice being heard.
In the past two weeks, students in Angela Casey’s class have created and launched a political campaign to stop the governors of Oregon and Washington from allowing any more sea lion deaths at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.
Over the past several weeks, Oregon and Washington state officials have captured and euthanized California sea lions seen eating salmon at the Columbia River dam.
The two states, along with Idaho, have been granted exemption from the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, allowing officials to kill the sea lions. The officials argue that the animals are having a “significant negative impact” on wild, endangered salmon populations.
Since May 4, 10 California sea lions have been trapped, nine killed and one shipped to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
The Lafayette Elementary students have caught the attention of activists up and down the coast, who have arranged an Oregon tour for Casey.
The activist groups, which include the Washington-based Sea Shepherd and the Portland, Ore.-based Sea Lion Defense Brigade, will join her as she tries to hand deliver her students’ letters today to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Casey said the Oregon governor will not meet her in person to receive the students' letters, such as one that says: "The sea lions of Bonneville Dam have more of a right to eat salmon than you do. Why can't you just fish a different kind of fish?!"
Kitzhaber’s office had no comment.
Casey became interested in the sea lions after seeing Facebook links from friends and marine animal advocacy groups to news stories and blog posts, including several from California Watch.
Already working on a marine-environment curriculum with her class, Casey decided to use the Bonneville sea lions as an example of a complex environmental situation, where management of one species – salmon – can interfere with another.
“The kids seemed pretty concerned about it,” she said. "They wanted to find out more about the sea lions’ impact on salmon.”
So the class started investigating. They looked to see how many salmon the sea lions ate and how big of an impact they were having on the fish. They then started researching other factors that threaten salmon, including commercial fishing, hydroelectric dams and invasive species.
The kids, she said, concluded the killings were wrong. But they weren’t content to leave it at that.
Coincidentally, another area her class was supposed to cover this year was letter writing, Casey said. So she suggested the students write letters to the politicians involved, including the governors of Oregon and Washington and even President Barack Obama.
The kids also wrote to state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, whom they hoped would sympathize with the cause.
"My office received 15 letters from Lafayette Elementary students,” Leno said in a statement. “I applaud these young people and their teacher for taking a stand on this animal protection issue and thank them for their advocacy and passion.”
Others took notice, too.
Other classes at the school invited Casey's third-graders in to do presentations on the sea lions. Some of those students started writing letters. Casey started a Facebook page to feature the students' letters, drawings and paintings.
“And then the parents got involved,” said Casey. And before she knew it, she was being contacted by organizations interested in the topic, including Sea Shepherd.
“The ripple effect has been amazing,” she said, adding that she hopes the students are learning a valuable lesson about democracy and civil engagement.
“They made an effort to have their voices heard,” she said. “And they are being heard.”
Indeed, the one sea lion spared from euthanasia by Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium was named “Casey” after the third-grade teacher.
Casey leaves today for her trip to Oregon. And although she’ll be alone, without her third-graders, she’ll keep in mind the saying she has spread across her Facebook page:
“Alone we are a drop, together we are an ocean.”