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Too Cute to Shoot? 

The adoring public may have a problem with what San Francisco has in store for its troublesome invaders, the sea lions.

Wednesday, Oct 7 2009
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On a wet September morning about an hour after the sun rose over San Francisco's Hyde Street Harbor, two men carried a kennel onto the Kitty Kat, a tour boat bound for the Farallon Islands. They placed the container at the end of a row of six more that each carried the same cargo — a frightened young sea lion peeking from behind a barred window.

Once malnourished and sick, the yearling sea lions had stranded themselves up and down the California coast. Some had been pierced with fishing hooks or stingray spines; most had been found near starvation. The female runt in the kennel on the end had been picked up in Monterey Bay after Wayne Fenton, a former army tank commander, found her with a gunshot wound to her left eye.

Fenton had named his sea lion Breadstick, and sponsored her recovery at the Marine Mammal Center's hospital and research center in Sausalito, where all of the sea lions on board the Kitty Kat had been treated and nursed back to health. He had come all the way from Mountain View in a rental car to see Breadstick off.

Today, the sea lions would be returned to the wild in what seemed like a victory for everyone involved. The release would provide an uplifting experience for the sightseers, and thanks to the Marine Mammal Center, the sea lions would get a second chance that nature alone would have never permitted.

But there was something going on at Hyde Street Harbor that morning that seemed to detract from the triumphant atmosphere. Full-grown male sea lions — members of the same species as the rescued yearlings — were everywhere.

About 50 of them had spilled over from their traditional home at Pier 39 and hurled themselves up on the docks at the Hyde Street Pier. Now they were wiggling around, barking raucously, and stinking like fish guts.

Hedley Prince, the Port of San Francisco's harbormaster and the man responsible for the upkeep of this dock, has a word for these animals: infestation.

Back in August, the sea lions began arriving en masse and took over several wooden harbor fingers meant for boat docking; still more of them seem to show up every day. As the West Coast population of California sea lions explodes, experts say the environment will be unable to support them much longer. Recently, thousands have died of starvation.

Meanwhile, sea lions have bitten and bumped swimmers, poached fishermen's catches, sunk boats, and damaged docks. A growing number of people in San Francisco would like to see the nuisance creatures banished, but under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), there are strict rules for dealing with them. They can't be intentionally killed or injured, and without proper permits, they can't even be scared away.

Prince has set out to secure those permits, which will eventually enable him to ignite seal bombs (underwater firecrackers that send a "concussion wave" that stuns fish and terrifies sea lions) near the animals and shoot them in the hindquarters with rubber buckshot. But the potential for a public relations disaster is high, especially considering that the sea lion–loving public — unaware of the mayhem that these opportunistic animals create — seems intent on saving each and every one.

As the Kitty Kat cruised out of the harbor and past the adorable infestation, a large bull arched its back and lazily tilted its head skyward, as if to say I'm not going anywhere.


These days, the overpowering stench of fishy sea lion excrement perpetually wafts around Pier 39, which a record number of adult sea lions have made their home base.

Heads just visible above the water, the animals routinely circle the overcrowded, low-floating docks, six of which need to be replaced because of the damage the sea lions have caused. Every now and then, one bursts from the water in a gawky attempt to socialize or dry off. Others growl and hiss at the wet intruder (bizarrely, they hate getting sprayed) and commence play fights for the limited space. Tourists apparently believe there is no such thing as too many photographs of such behavior.

What visitors rarely notice is that because the designated sea lion territory at Pier 39 can no longer accommodate the population, some have migrated to nearby docks intended for boats. A Marine Mammal Center survey recently numbered the sea lions at Pier 39 at an all-time high — 1,585.

There are several theories for why they've arrived this year in such overwhelming numbers. The population of California sea lions on the West Coast appears to be growing at an annual rate of 5.6 percent and now totals about 238,000 (that's a minimum estimate, and fishermen swear there must be far more). To put that in context, there are just 40,000 Steller sea lions, and only about 500 of those endangered creatures live in California waters.

California sea lions are multiplying faster than their fellow pinnipeds because they're highly intelligent, opportunistic, and adaptable creatures. If you've ever seen what you believed to be a seal balancing a ball on its nose at a circus, you were looking at a California sea lion. The Navy even trained them to approach underwater enemies from behind and attach clamps to their legs, allowing the swimmers to be pulled from the water.

With their whiskers, doe eyes, and chubby, wriggly bodies, sea lions are undeniably cute. They are sometimes classified as "charismatic megafauna," a term for a large animal species with popular appeal that environmentalists can use to further their conservation goals.

Of course, California sea lions aren't endangered, and there's little indication they ever have been. They are, however, protected under the MMPA, which means that nobody can bother them, and applications to remove them require an obscene amount of paperwork. It's an undertaking that gets a harbormaster wondering whether it would make more sense to simply let the beasts have their way.

Back in 1989, when California sea lions first began to arrive at Pier 39, that option became attractive, particularly after the animals became a tourist attraction. Their cherubic faces became synonymous with San Francisco sightseeing, and eventually a Webcam was set up to record their activities at all hours. Although the Port of San Francisco feared that the sea lions would eventually expand their territory, it opted not to spend money on precautions in the construction of the nearby Hyde Street Harbor, which opened to recreational boats, seasonal fishing vessels, and the public in 2001.

In August, after stirrings of El Niño in the Pacific thwarted the usual upwelling of nutrients and disrupted the food chain, small fish and their predators headed elsewhere in search of grub. When an influx of sardines showed up in the San Francisco Bay, so, too, did vast numbers of sea lions.

Their loud and smelly arrival was a disaster for people who share the waterfront, including fisherman Sean Hodges. "It's the worst thing I've ever seen in my life," he said. "It's horrible."

Hodges catches sardines to sell to sportfishing operations, but that's hard to do when sea lions are following his boat around and stealing fish out of the nets. Because of the sea lions, Hodges now has to fish at night, and estimates he has sustained $5,000 of damage to his pens and nets. "They protected these things [sea lions] for so many years, and look what it's done," he said.

In addition to the fishermen, waterfront recreational club members, boat owners, and Port of San Francisco staffers have an interest in ridding their territory of sea lions. On a recent Tuesday morning, about 40 of them met at Scoma's Restaurant to strategize and vent.

Dolphin Club swimmer Rosemary McNally said that on her swim that morning, she had seen dozens of sea lions nearby. She mentioned a friend who had been bitten by one, and had to take antibiotics to prevent a nasty bacterial infection called leptospirosis. "I want nothing to do with the sea lions," she declared.

When someone asked how many people in the room had been bitten, several hands went up; a few people shared stories of others who had been nipped and harassed. Surprisingly, nobody brought up the rogue sea lion that bit 14 swimmers and chased others from the water in 2006.

Another problem: Tourists are walking right onto the Hyde Street Harbor Pier to snap photos of the wild, dangerous animals up close. Many in the room had heard the story of a foolish woman who actually lay down next to a sea lion. "You want to get rid of this before someone's seriously injured," said Tom Creeden, the owner of Scoma's.

When Prince took the floor, he explained that sea lion infestation was an intractable problem not just here in San Francisco, but all up and down the West Coast. He promised to install barricades on the docks, and eventually to use nonlethal deterrents. That will include spraying hoses, exploding seal bombs near the animals, and shooting them with rubber bullets. Although reports from other harbors say that seal bombs and rubber bullets don't injure the sea lions, animal-rights activists don't buy it.

Prince is worried about an image problem. "The public may say, 'You're harassing animals,'" he said.

Nobody in the room seemed to share that opinion: "We can say they started it," someone yelled.


Bringing up who started it probably isn't the best approach, considering that before 1972, marine mammals were routinely hunted for their meat and fur, and some, including the northern fur seal, had nearly become extinct. That led to the passage of the MMPA and the creation of the Marine Mammal Center, which opened its doors to sick animals in 1975.

At the entrance of the recently reconstructed hospital and research center in the hills of the Marin Headlands, a life-size statue of a proud young sea lion gazes out toward Muir Beach. Here, the sea lion is sacred.

In 1998, the center's director of veterinary science, Frances Gulland, won acclaim with her discovery and study of toxic algae poisoning in sea lions, also referred to as domoic acid poisoning. More recently, the center's marketing machine brought in enough donations to revamp the facilities — once just a collection of room-sized shipping containers on a former Nike missile base — into a multimillion-dollar operation with new pens and pools, a filtration system, an education center, a gift shop, a necropsy room, and a spacious kitchen stocked with frozen herring and ingredients for fish smoothies.

The center rescues and studies Steller sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals, otters, and dolphins, but for the past several months, members of only one species have come in — California sea lions. The center has taken in 1,183 of them so far this year — far more than in years past — and is typically able to release about half of its animals back into the wild.

A tour through the holding pens — currently home to about 80 California sea lions — is not for the squeamish. Sickly-looking animals with toxic algae poisoning or leptospirosis (communications director Jim Oswald calls these "the Leptos") are sprawled out, some wearing large splints to protect abscesses and gashes caused by sharks and propellers. Other ailments include cancer, starvation, and human-inflicted wounds, including damage from seal bombs. "It's horrific to see," Oswald says. When asked about the worst human damage, he mentions one sea lion that was brought in with an arrow through its neck, which was successfully removed and tracked back to the shooter, who was prosecuted.

Veterinarians tread quietly through the hospital corridors in red coveralls and boots, carrying syringes filled with substances like phenobarbital, a seizure suppressant. To administer such shots, staff must corner the animals with large wooden boards.

Making it all possible are more than 800 volunteers and 30,000 dues-paying members; a $2 million appropriation from a bill sponsored by elected officials Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and Lynn Woolsey; and about $10 million a year in donations. Donors are recruited through clever marketing materials, which often include the cute little faces of struggling California sea lion pups.

Wayne Fenton wound up a donor almost by accident. The former Army man, who now works for the Navy as a civilian, seems an unlikely sucker for sea lions. But after he left his home in Germany as part of a naval requirement that he spend one year outside Europe, he became homesick and lonely.

In early August, he and his visiting wife vacationed in Monterey Bay and encountered an emaciated sea lion, surrounded by people poking and gawking at it. "I was in the army for 20 years," he says. "I've seen people get shot. I've seen human wounds. That doesn't affect me, but this did."

Fenton could see that the animal had been shot in the eye, and couldn't believe that someone would do that to a small and seemingly helpless animal.

He alerted authorities, who in turn contacted a Marine Mammal Center satellite operation. Eventually, a volunteer with a kennel arrived, and Fenton and his wife helped her rescue the sea lion, which involved restraining another enormous female with wooden boards.

The lethargic, underweight animal was eventually taken to the center's hospital in Sausalito. Fenton called often to inquire about its health; without hesitating, he paid $400 for surgery to remove its eye. Fenton and his wife were given the privilege of naming the animal. Because of how brittle and thin she looked, they settled on Breadstick.

A little more than a month later, Breadstick had gained a couple of kilos and was flopping in circles inside her kennel aboard the Kitty Kat, ready to be released. Fenton was surprised that she had recovered so fast, but was elated to be part of her journey back to the wild.

Intently focused on the well-being of his particular sea lion, Fenton didn't pay much attention to the other pinniped passengers — Fall In, Halyward, Paperclip, Pib, Rodin, and Seconds. Even further off the radar were the enormous California sea lions terrorizing the Hyde Street Harbor — and plenty of other ports and harbors up and down the West Coast.


About midway up the Oregon coastline is a sportfishing town called Gold Beach that was recently on the brink of losing its livelihood to sea lions. A group of 30 animals had taken up residence on the two-stoplight town's docks, and each time a fishing boat came back towing nets of coho and Chinook salmon, the sea lions belly-flopped into the water and poached the catch.

"People are disappointed if they don't catch a fish," says Mark Lottis, president of the Curry Sportfishing Association. "But when you go out and spend the time and resources to catch a fish and then lose it to an animal — and that happens nine and a half times out of 10 — that's a whole 'nother dimension."

In the early summer of 2005, the association asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to help preserve Gold Beach's economy and deal with angler frustration, which was reportedly putting individual sea lions at risk. (About 8 percent of the troubled sea lions the Marine Mammal Center takes in have been intentionally harmed by people.) After a number of public meetings and what Lottis referred to as "three dumptruck loads of paperwork," the Port of Gold Beach was given the go-ahead on a three-pronged approach. Barricades were constructed to prevent the sea lions from lazing about on the docks; fish-cleaning stations stopped discarding carcasses in the water; and hazing weaponry such as noisemakers, rubber buckshot, and seal bombs was put to use.

For the first year of this effort, Lottis became a full-time sea lion hazer. First thing in the morning, he would round them up, using a combination of rubber bullets and seal bombs, and herd them out to the ocean. Then his job became a waiting game. He would sit on his boat, waiting for the creatures to come back — and they almost always did. Then he'd blast them with more rubber bullets and seal bombs.

If the water was rough and one sea lion slipped by him unnoticed, fishermen would call, and Lottis would speed back and start over. "Some days it's busy, and some days it's superboring," he said. Eventually, he hired another man for the job, who is harassing sea lions to this day: "The minute you aren't there, it starts all over again."

The problem in Gold Beach, though devastating to the tiny town, was minor in comparison to that of Monterey Bay. In 2003, 1,500 sea lions showed up, covered the docks with vomit and feces, and in just a few weeks sank 40 boats under their substantial weight. In Newport Harbor in Southern California, sea lions staged multiple invasions and outwitted an automated water gun built to scare them; they sank Jerry Dunlap's antique 1910 sailboat, the Razzle Dazzle, which cost $3,500 to recover. After a Seattle sea lion invasion began feasting on Puget Sound's endangered steelhead trout, concerned locals built a fiberglass whale, "Fake Willy," which failed completely. The sea lions were then transported hundreds of miles south, only to return a week later.

In Moss Landing, a little more than two hours south of San Francisco, the sea lion problem this year was twofold. Numerous large adults descended on the harbor, while young sea lions washed up on the beach. They were part of an estimated 59,000 pups born this year on the Channel Islands, but when the emerging El Niño conditions dispersed the fish they eat, the pups began to starve. "They beached themselves and lay on the shore, dying in front of God and everybody and all the tourists," Moss Landing harbormaster Linda McIntyre said. "It was horrendous."

Disgusted that the MMPA dictated that the starving animals die a slow and public death, she contacted her congressman, Sam Farr, in hopes that an amendment might allow mercy killings. "Imagine having all these cute things, and someone suggesting we go in with shotguns," she said.

But she quickly learned there was no chance. The only solution was to call the Marine Mammal Center to have somebody pick up the young sea lions and transport them to the hospital.

Over the summer, the center was so overcrowded with California sea lions that some had to be left to die. Though members of the public complained, McIntyre doesn't see more rescues as a great solution. In fact, she'd love to bring in some white sharks and orcas — the sea lions' only natural predators — to take care of business. With individual sea lions eating what she estimates to be 40 pounds of fish a day, she sees protecting them as "one of the worst examples of man tampering with nature."

As somebody who has to deal directly with the problem, McIntyre has her biases, but she raises a couple of valid questions. Why is the center working to conserve a species whose population has exploded and become a nuisance to people? Why does it release the animals back into the wild, rather than simply euthanizing them?

The reason, executive director Jeff Boehm says, is that it's the humane thing to do. "When we release, it's a great success for us, but for the individual patient it's a tremendous success," he said.

According to Boehm, the number of California sea lions the center releases do not contribute meaningfully to overpopulation.

But there are plenty of people, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wildlife biologist Joe Cordaro, who see no real point in rehabilitating starving animals. "If they can't make it the first time, no matter how much food you give, a sea lion is probably not going to make it over the long run," he said. "But it makes the public happy."

Cordaro, who has been dealing with beached marine mammals since 1988, says we are approaching a time where large amounts of California sea lions will have to die. Since the passage of the MMPA, he says, their numbers have been increasing every year, and it is inevitable that the environment will eventually fail to support them all. After this year's devastating famine, some wildlife biologists believe that's already happening.

When there are too many sea lions, it's bad for the marine ecosystem, and plenty of humans are fairly upset about it, too. Is there a certain point that the Marine Mammal Center will stop releasing sea lions back into the wild?

In a word, no. "I think those are interesting discussions for federal agencies," Boehm said. "With the Marine Mammal Protection Act being what it is, we're doing the right thing by responding and treating these animals effectively."

Fantastic, harbormaster Prince says. Then they become his problem.

Recognizable by their orange identification tags, some of the rehabbed animals are returning to San Francisco Bay and making a small contribution to the problems at Hyde Street Harbor and Aquatic Park. One afternoon, Marine Mammal Center volunteers were spotted carrying kennels very close to the water; an enraged Prince suspected that sea lions were being released directly into his harbor. But the volunteers denied it, and no proof ever surfaced.

On a recent Wednesday, Prince walks across the Hyde Street Harbor Pier, pointing out the damage. Weighed down by sea lions, the docks are floating much lower than they should, and the power and water lines that run through them are being put in jeopardy because of it, he says. He points at a sea lion that has jumped up on an electrical box that will eventually give under its weight. Furthermore, sea lions have been blocking the walkway, leaving boat occupants stranded. Although Prince has sprayed them with hoses, they tend to jump up on another nearby dock, then come right back when he leaves. "These sea lions ... " he says, shaking his head. "They're beginning to look like rats to me."

In a matter of months, Prince hopes he'll be able to duplicate the success of Gold Beach. Barricades for the docks are in the works, the public has been prohibited from Hyde Street Pier, and he is in the process of applying for permits to use seal bombs and buckshot. He's also hoping to hire a full-time sea lion shooter. "If there was a company around that we could contract with, like Sea Lion Eradication Incorporated or something like that, we would do it," he said.

Whether Gold Beach's tactics will work here is unclear. Up there, the sea lions had nowhere to go but back to the ocean. In San Francisco Bay, there are all kinds of places they can hang out. And that's assuming no environmental activists decide to protest over the use of weaponry. As clear as the problem may be to the people who deal with it every day, there are plenty of animal lovers who won't comprehend how a man can raise a gun to a sea lion.


Battling nine-foot waves and punishing wind on its way to the Farallon Islands, the Kitty Kat sped past a number of giant green buoys, all of which had been commandeered by California sea lions. Huddled together and bobbing in the fog, they appeared to be dreaming of a sardine-surrounded dock in the bay, where the laws of nature are less relevant than the MMPA.

Carol Keiper, a boisterous naturalist who resembles Frances McDormand, announced that this would be a good place to release the yearling sea lions, and Captain Joe Nazar, a burly environmentalist, agreed. Both have seen shark attacks around the Farallones; several years ago, as documented in The Devil's Teeth, a book on great white sharks, two sea lions were released and immediately massacred. "Not my buddies," Nazar said. "Not on my ship."

If those on board didn't like the idea of sea lions having it rough in nature, they liked harassment from humans even less. "You can assume that people who are working at a place like the Marine Mammal Center are more of the school of thought that the area the pier was built on was home to sea lions far before humans were here," said Enosh Baker, a Marine Mammal Center intern.

When the boat arrived at Fisherman Bay, captain and crew took a long look at the water for sharks. When none materialized, the strongest passengers lifted and unlatched the kennels on the sides and back of the boat. Suspended above the swirling, icy waters, most of the sea lions clung desperately to their kennels, forcing their releasers to tilt and shake the enclosures. One by one, the animals slipped out; a group of four huddled close to the boat. The humans cheered and shouted goodbyes.

Wayne Fenton had taken Breadstick to the starboard, where there was an opening in the side of the boat. He didn't want to dump his sea lion overboard; he wanted her to be able to jump into the ocean on her own.

When he unlatched the kennel, Breadstick immediately stuck her nose out and dove into the sea. She swam in several circles, looking back at Fenton with her one eye. When another sea lion, Fall In, joined Breadstick, they shared a nose kiss, then swam off together toward the Farallones.

"Breadstick was just spinning and spinning and spinning!" Fenton said with a loud laugh. "That felt really good."

On the way back, he looked over his pictures of the sea lion, and reflected on his time with her. "If Breadstick could actually talk, I could see her saying thank you for taking the time to actually do this," he said. "I just hope Breadstick has an inkling that someone actually cared."

When the Kitty Kat arrived back at the Hyde Street Harbor, the infestation was there to greet the boat. Looking over the dock, several passengers let out gasps and began pointing to where a moaning sea lion lay with an enormous gash on its side. One disturbed onlooker reached for a cellphone.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell

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