First, San Francisco welcomed the California sea lion and it became our tourism spokes-creature. Then, sea lion numbers exploded as they infringed on human territory at the Hyde Street Pier. Last month, the adorable beasts inexplicably relinquished the territory.
Now we think we know why: The sea lions were scared off by a fisherman's dog.
"He runs in their direction, barking," says itinerant fisherman Daniel K. of his dog, a golden retriever–pit bull mix called Rez. "He's a lot faster than they are on land. That's what gets 'em."
When Daniel K. showed up at the Hyde Street Pier for crab season in early November, he found it covered in sea lions. Although he had heard about the problems with pinniped infestations up and down the West Coast, "San Francisco is the worst I've seen," he says. He never imagined his dog might be a solution. When he got Rez a year ago, the dog was unfazed by sea lions. But on a recent fishing trip, Rez developed an aversion after several aggressive sea lions charged the boat: "It freaked him out. After that, he would bark at them."
The fisherman didn't set out to banish the sea lions — he just needed to walk his dog. While he says Rez never physically attacked the sea lions, he did run after them and bark at them. Evidently that was enough to scare them off. After he spent several nights walking Rez around the Hyde Street Pier, their numbers dropped from about 100 to zero.
"This is potentially a good way of controlling them," says Port of San Francisco wharfinger Hedley Prince, who has been tasked with handling the sea lion problem.
Prince has looked into an array of deterrents, including seal bombs, rubber bullets, and barricades on docks. In the end, though, the port decided against harsh-sounding weaponry to avoid a public outcry and simply installed barricades. When the sea lions disappeared last month, Prince and the fishermen were mystified and delighted.
But the story doesn't end there. Recently, Daniel K. and Rez left for Oregon, and the sea lions began to reclaim the pier.
"Mystery solved," says Prince, who hopes to start a dogs-versus-sea-lions program in San Francisco. But apparently the port brass isn't too keen, and using dogs as deterrents may be a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which essentially dictates that sea lions not be bothered. (By the way, this is why we're not using the fisherman's full name.) The problem is that the creatures might attack each other, causing injuries and transmitting diseases, says Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There are better alternatives out there," he says. "When this comes up, we recommend against it."