Sea lions meet Port resistance

By James Robinson 
Posted 6/5/24



California sea lions might be taking up residence along the city’s waterfront to the delight of onlookers, but it is to the dismay of officials at the Port of Port …

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Sea lions meet Port resistance




California sea lions might be taking up residence along the city’s waterfront to the delight of onlookers, but it is to the dismay of officials at the Port of Port Townsend and the Northwest Maritime Center.

“Huge animals like sea lions can wreak havoc on docks and floats,” said Eron Berg, executive director of the Port of Port Townsend. “They can make it impossible to dock, and of course, nobody is going to want to see their six-year old go anywhere close.”

Berg said the Port wants to make sure that boating facilities designed for the public are used by people, not sea lions. 

California sea lions have been part of Jefferson County’s marine landscape for thousands of years, but it was over the last week that first one, and then up to five, hauled their massive bodies out of the water onto the floating dock at the Northwest Maritime Center. One or two have also been spotted on the floating dock at Union Wharf and at Point Hudson.

The sea lions can be noisy and have already attracted onlookers. But officials with the maritime center and the Port, concerned that this rarity might be the first phase of a “dangerous invasion,” want to encourage them to find different temporary homes. Mindful of reports that sea lions have pulled children into the water and damaged waterfront docks while preventing human use, they say they are determined to make sea lion use of local docks a short one. 

It's important to take steps sooner than later, said Berg. If the first sea lions attract many others, it can become an expensive, complicated problem.

“We hear from other ports that you might start with one but soon there are a whole lot of them,” Berg said. In Seattle, for example, one publicly funded strategy is to entice sea lions into cages and then transport them all the way to California. 

Port and maritime center staff expect to take many steps to discourage the sea lions from trying to make Port Townsend docks a home, all in accord with recommendations outlined by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency’s (NOAA) interpretation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. The Port and the maritime center have also consulted with NOAA and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, both of which endorsed the incremental approach being pursued. 

That approach starts with the insertion of artificial replicas of sea lion predators such as orcas, with plans both for floating replicas and humans suited up like one. If that doesn’t work, NOAA allows for an escalation of tactics such as air horns, flashing lights, low voltage mats, some projectiles like paint guns that apply a temporarily uncomfortable gel, and water hoses. 

“I thought about inviting the Unexpected Brass Band,” joked Jake Beattie, chief executive officer of the maritime center. “We still might.”

If those measures don’t work, officials can escalate to some form of noisy fireworks such as bird bombs. 

The timing is especially acute with the “Ruckus” party on June 8 and the Race to Alaska (R2AK) commencing on June 9. The R2AK begins on center docks and brings dozens of race crews and thousands of supporters.

Beattie said there’s also the center’s popular summer sailing education programs for youngsters, is scheduled to begin in late June.

There are many accounts from up and down the west coast of dogs, children, and even adults pulled into the water, bitten and infected. One Port official noted that isn’t typical, stating that a sea lion’s preferred food is not children. Sea lions eat marine life – octopus, salmon, cod and other bottom fish. Unfortunately, said Berg, that’s exactly the kind of sea life that has been gathering around the artificial reef the port built near the mouth of Point Hudson. 

Male California sea lions can grow to be almost nine feet long and weigh over 700 pounds. Females are much smaller, weighing about 220 pounds, according NOAA. May to August is considered mating season, with males establishing territories. Sea lion populations on the West Coast have bounced back since passage of the federal MMPA. The current U.S. West Coast population is estimated at around 240,000.

While sea lions often attract curious and delighted onlookers, the creatures also attract the ire of state lawmakers and wildlife resource managers. Sea lions, they say, with their voracious appetites for salmon, have led to the decline of key fisheries, particularly on the lower Columbia River.

“This was a recognition from both sides of the aisle that the predation problem on the Columbia requires urgent attention,” said state Sen. Jeff Wilson (R-Longview) during budget discussions in February 2024. “Lake Washington spring chinook were wiped out three decades ago because Washington failed to respond quickly and effectively to predation at the Ballard Locks. We can’t let it happen again.”

Wilson pushed for a $1.5 million appropriation to combat sea lion predation on the lower Columbia River and its tributaries. The state Senate supported the bill.

According to state fish and wildlife managers, sea lions have consumed thousands of migrating salmon each year, many from runs listed as threatened and endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The MMPA recognizes that predation by a growing sea lion population can jeopardize salmon and steelhead stocks at risk of extinction.

After a multi-year effort to haze sea lions away from fish below the Bonneville Dam, NOAA Fisheries concluded that non-lethal measures, by themselves, were not sufficient to curb the growing levels of predation. 

Lawmakers such as Wilson plan to gather more data so that the state’s federal permit to control sea lions on the Columbia can be extended to the Puget Sound basin.