Returning sea lions could be in for a shock

The California sea lions may have mysteriously disappeared from Pier 39 last year, but tourists shouldn't worry — they'll return. If the sea lion numbers last July are any indicator, both Pier 39 and the Hyde Street Harbor — which is meant for people and boats, not beasts — will again be held hostage this summer.

Harbormaster Hedley Prince, tasked with combating what he calls "the infestation," understands this better than anybody. Last year, he hoped to use rubber bullets and seal bombs (underwater firecrackers) to banish the creatures, but the Port of San Francisco opted against it in fear of a P.R. disaster. Now he has a new idea: zapping sea lions with an underwater electric field. The zap wouldn't be lethal. "It's just enough to irritate them," he says. He's not the only one interested in this new technology.

Prince traveled to Moss Landing earlier this week to meet with other harbormasters and discuss issues with sea lions, whose population has exploded in recent years. The protected beasts have been invading docks, sinking boats, endangering people, and pinching fish. Numerous deterrence techniques — including fake whales, relocation programs, and noisemakers — have failed to thwart them.

Prince also met with representatives from Smith-Root, a Washington, D.C.–based company that created the electrified deterrence technology and tested its effectiveness in 2008. A video demonstration on the Smith-Root website suggests that it works well in a controlled setting. The sea lions' "whiskers are sensitive to it," Prince says.

The technology has yet to be implemented anywhere, but tests in the Puntledge and Columbia rivers in British Columbia showed promise (although there were problems with the electric field affecting salmon in the Columbia, according to Carl Berger, a researcher with Smith-Root).

Other obstacles might arise in San Francisco. The port would need permits and funding, and Smith-Root would need to test extensively. Berger says the technology has never been tried in saltwater. He isn't optimistic, but "we promised Hedley that we'd take a look at his issues," he says.

Determined to find a way to beat the sea lion problem, Prince would like to seal off the Hyde Street Harbor but for one underwater entrance, and then install the zap zone there. He says an electrified field would provide a nonviolent, long-term solution, and hopes the San Francisco Bay can serve as a pilot site for the technology.

Out for a recent stroll at the harbor, he counted seven lounging sea lions. "I think they're definitely on their way back," he says.

 
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