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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

Page 4 of 5

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.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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