Sea lions prove tough to keep away from Westport Marina

The Daily World (Aberdeen)July 14, 2014 

WESTPORT – The Port of Grays Harbor may consider a shocking solution to uninvited guests at the Westport Marina.

Most techniques for dealing with the sea lions that are often found lounging on the marina’s docks only last as long as it takes the animals to realize it isn’t hurting them. But makers of an electrically charged mesh told the port last week their product would keep them away for good — for a price of nearly $70,000.

Over the past two years, the massive animals have begun to present a serious problem, marina manager Robin Leraas said. This year, the population topped 200 for the first time.

With the marina occupancy at 83 percent of its 550 berths occupied, the probability of someone being injured is on the rise.

“This is the fullest I’ve ever seen the marina,” Leraas said. “You have smaller fishermen coming in with their catch and the sea lions are chasing after them to try to get that catch.”

Even scarier for Leraas, visitors to the marina often try to pose for pictures with the huge creatures. It’s illegal to feed the sea lions, but that’s often ignored, further encouraging the animals to come to the docks.

“They are wild animals, so they are very dangerous,” Leraas said. “People take pictures and put their kids in danger, not realizing the danger they’re in.”

Marina staff have chased off the animals, only to have them lumber back up onto the docks within minutes. Fencing solutions have had limited success.

“Once they find that these don’t hurt them, or it’s not uncomfortable for them, they just get up on the docks anyway,” she said.

The animals are protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, so it’s illegal to kill or harm them, leaving few long-term solutions for marinas where they damage equipment and electrical hookups.

Smith-Root, a fisheries technology company based in Vancouver, Washington, presented an alternative at last week’s port commission meeting.

Patrick Cooney, a fisheries scientist working for the company, said its electric mesh produces a DC current at an extremely low level, one that won’t harm the sea lions or the humans using the docks.

“This is not your hair dryer in the bathtub situation,” Cooney said. “Deterrence was achieved at levels most humans cannot even detect.”

Martin O’Farrell, director of Smith-Root Europe and a doctor of fisheries biology, said, “It’s barely detectable; these animals are clearly more sensitive than we are.”

The mesh is powered by solar panels and can be manufactured in custom dimensions. To cover Float 11 at the marina, Cooney said it would cost $68,200.

Sea lions have been plaguing marinas up and down the West Coast for years with little in the way of effective solutions. Leraas said it might be possible to drive the cost down by coordinating with other marinas.

Brent Norberg of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries division said the problem isn’t likely to fix itself. General consensus in the scientific community is the sea lions have reached a carrying capacity, meaning their population is likely to stabilize at about this point.

“We have to start learning to cope with success, I’d guess you’d say, because these animals are large,” Norberg said.

The average sea lion is about 650 pounds, but some weigh as much as a full ton.

“They run as fast as a person, they’re as strong as a bear and they bite,” he said.

A variety of techniques have been tested out at other marinas.

“We’ve been trying to use acoustic devices, we’ve tried pyrotechnics, visual stimulation, but as was mentioned, those methods have a finite period before they realize they’re not causing physical harm,” Norberg said. “You pretty much have to constantly change your technique to get ahead of them.”

Physical barriers have had the most success, but removing excess food sources can help as well. Sea life around the marina offers rich feeding grounds for the lions, but fishermen cleaning their catch are also attractive.

At one marina, Norberg recalled, “they had cleaning stations that emptied into a chute, and they had animals there with their mouths on the other end of the chute.”

Cooney said that in San Francisco, the sea lions were driven away from actively used areas.

“Our goal with this is to offer a negative stimulus when they’re in areas where they’re not supposed to be, and our hope is you guys would not be offering that stimulus in areas it’s acceptable for them to be,” Cooney said.

“We can guarantee that once this goes down, no one will occupy that zone. It may be a matter of prioritizing areas,” O’Farrell said.

No decision is expected immediately. The sea lions have temporarily migrated away from the marina, but are expected to return toward the end of the month or in August.

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