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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.