Dec 18 2015

Port commissioner wants to sue the feds over sea lions

Daily Astorian/File Photo
Seals and California sea lions are seen on the docks of the East End Mooring Basin in Astoria in June.



Commissioner Bill Hunsinger wants the Port of Astoria to go after the federal government regarding sea lions.

Port of Astoria Commissioner Bill Hunsinger said the agency should do something — potentially litigation — against the federal government regarding California sea lions in the Columbia River.

“Somebody has to be first, and I think it’s time for the Port of Astoria to be first at something,” Hunsinger said, after adding sea lions to the agenda of Tuesday’s Port Commission meeting.

Hunsinger, a commercial fisherman, said the agency needs to do something before the smelt start running early next year. The small, oily eulachons are a popular diet for male California sea lions migrating by the thousands north between breeding seasons, along with endangered salmon runs and anything else seasonal and abundant.

The pinnipeds have been showing up in the Columbia in increasing numbers, including more than 2,300 counted in March at the Port’s East End Mooring Basin. The Port has said the sea lions, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, are causing extensive damage to docks and preventing slips at the basin from being rented to boat owners. Hunsinger estimated 143 prospective customers are waiting to get a slip at the West End Mooring Basin, where sea lions have not congregated, while the east mooring basin remains empty, except for two docks near the breakwater with mostly commercial vessels.

“I don’t know why we have to provide those sea lions a home,” Hunsinger said, adding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should help the Port solve the problem or compensate the agency for the damage caused by the animals.

Sea lions were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, when their population was as low as 25,000. Current estimates have the population at more than 300,000 along the entire West Coast. NOAA oversees protection of sea lions through the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Port’s attorney, Tim Ramis, said the idea sounds like a novel first-time effort, and that he would look into the options.

Executive Director Jim Knight said the most effective barriers tried by NOAA were rolled steel that keeps sea lions from jumping on docks. He estimated the barriers could cost the Port $450,000 to $500,000.

“It’s a daunting number,” he said, adding the Port may need to find an alternate solution.


Raise the bar


Robin Brown, Marine Mammal Program Leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he has worked on the sea lion issue with the Port for decades.

About 15 years ago, Brown said, he helped the Port create drawings of 1.5-inch galvanized steel pipes elevated nearly 2 feet above the edges of the docks, a strategy he said has worked in various ports in the Puget Sound region.

“To do the East End Mooring Basin, you’re talking about $15,000 to $20,000,” Brown said. “The marinas in Puget Sound have done that, and they have been effective.”

Brown said a shortage of prey in California, a growth in the sea lion population and stronger runs of smelt and salmon are driving the sea lions into the Columbia River. He said it is a problem the Port will have to deal with for decades.

“Really, the only way to deal with it is to make the investment for some significant and solid barriers,” Brown said, adding marine mammal problems are near the bottom in funding priorities for NOAA.


Starving sea lions


Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said she recently found California sea lion pups in their San Miguel Island rookeries averaged 26 pounds, more than 30 percent less than usual and the lowest average weights in more than 40 years of monitoring. The starvation points to their mothers’ difficulty in foraging because of unseasonably warm waters driving prey farther offshore. Mothers and young tend to stay closer to their California rookeries.

Melin said the expectation is for the large die-offs and strandings of the last couple of years to continue with El Niño conditions.

“For the most part, this doesn’t affect the males as they tend to migrate out of the area in late August and remain north of San Francisco through most of the winter and spring,” she said.

Both Melin and Brown said the seasonal availability of prey will determine where and how many sea lions aggregate.

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