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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.