Beach balls are fun for seals, but apparently scary for sea lions.
Visitors lined up Sunday along the Port of Astoria’s East End Mooring Basin causeway to watch the sea lions on the docks below. Among them moved Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, clutching a string of twine attached to a small, multicolored beach ball, the latest and possibly weirdest weapon used to evict the stubborn pinnipeds.
Knight scaled the barriers set up on P Dock, followed by Robert Evert, his permit and project manager, and Bill MacDonald, a Cannery Lofts resident who had suggested the beach balls.
“The idea is to just tie up some of these cheap things along the docks,” MacDonald explained, comparing the practice to putting milk jugs on fences to keep deer out.
Unlike seals, who like to play with beach balls, MacDonald said he discovered that sea lions are frightened of the inflatable toys.
Sea lions scattered Sunday at the sight of the beach balls, whether tossed off the causeway or carried out onto the docks by MacDonald and Port staff.
“They’re only a buck apiece,” Knight said. “So for $20, I can get a couple docks covered.”
The Port has tried several methods to evict the sea lions, from the brightly colored surveying tape and pennants lining a couple of the docks near the basin’s breakwater to lightly electrified mats being designed by Smith-Root Fisheries Technology and the chicken wire fencing erected at the foot of P Dock.
By Tuesday evening, beach balls bobbed in the moorages up and down the finger piers of P Dock, almost entirely emptied of sea lions except for one or two stragglers.
Willy coming after Goonies
If beach balls are not a quirky enough sea lion deterrent, a fake, fiberglass orca will soon join the party at the basin.
Knight said the 36-foot fiberglass whale, used as an advertisement and parade gimmick by Island Mariner, which runs whale-watching trips out of Bellingham, Wash., will arrive around June 12, the weekend after the “The Goonies” 30th anniversary extravaganza.
In the meantime, Island Mariner owner Terry Buzzard is making the whale remote-controlled.
“It accidentally was used in Bellingham,” Buzzard said of the whale’s effectiveness. “We were playing with it, and it seemed to scare the sea lions away. They left, but we don’t have any reason why. That’s why I told Jim, ‘I’m not making any promises.’”
Sea lions at the basin continue drawing visitors, despite creative attempts by the Port to remove them from the docks and possible retaliation by people not so enamored with the fish-eating pinnipeds. The sea lion population has boomed since their protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act started in 1972.
Reports have been coming in from people finding dead sea lions on the beach and along the Astoria waterfront, some with possible bullet wounds. The Sea Lion Defense Brigade, which for years has monitored sea lions from Astoria to Bonneville Dam, reported finding 11 shell casings from a .44-caliber weapon at the basin last week, along with a sea lion with a serious eye wound.
The finding comes more than a month after the group reported finding 19 casings from a .306-caliber weapon at the basin. After the discovery, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement in Portland launched an investigation.
The discoveries are somewhat of a mystery. Sean Stanley, a federal officer with NOAA who confirmed in April his office had opened an investigation, would neither confirm nor deny the most recent discovery of shell casings. Meanwhile, there were no reports of gunfire to the police around either time the Sea Lion Defense Brigade said it discovered shell casings.
The Port turned over security footage to investigators after the first discovery. Members of the brigade and other watchdogs have also asked for the footage, which the agency has so far declined to provide.
“They’re surveillance tapes, and I don’t want people to know what our capacity for surveillance is,” Knight said, adding the light at the basin is not good enough for useful nighttime footage. “We talked to our lawyers, and it’s excluded from public records.”
Knight said the basin is not the place for sea lions to live, with health and safety issues from the high concentration of them in close proximity to people. Evert has said the natural environment for sea lions is the rock breakwaters surrounding the basin. Letting them live on docks, he added, is akin to domesticating them.
Knight said he has talked with Veronica Montoya, a member of the brigade who said she has discovered (gun) shells and sea lions that look like they have been shot, about the Port’s need to get sea lions off the docks.
Montoya, watching Tuesday as the Port laid out the beach balls, said she understands the agency’s position. But she added the Port needs to do more to protect the animals, and people need to look beyond their hatred of sea lions to see their benefit.
“I guess if it works, it’s OK; as long as it doesn’t hurt the sea lions,” Montoya said of the beach balls. “But I think that they should leave these animals alone, because they’re such a huge draw.”
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