Northwest News

Westport Marina struggling with sea lions

The Westport Marina is struggling with an increasing sea lion population, officials say.

The animals, whose population has grown steadily over the last decade, are causing damage to the floats and mooring dolphins, and are overrunning areas needed to store boats at the marina, said Leonard Barnes, the Port’s Deputy Executive Director.

Port officials are concerned about human-sea lion encounters. Barnes cited an incident from April when a sea lion in San Diego jumped for a fisherman’s catch as he held the fish for a photo. The animal bit down on the man’s hand, dragging him under water.

Westport Marina Manager Robin Leraas said almost every day she sees visitors getting dangerously close to the animals to take photos with sea lions in the background.

“We’ve even seen parents take their kids down there, and it’s like, ‘What are you doing?” Leraas said. “So we have to try and educate them on the dangers of the sea lions.”

Although the sea lions have become an attraction, Leraas said the marina’s main business is to lease space to moor boats. That can’t happen at a marina overrun with sea lions, she said.

Leraas said she’s brought the issue to lawmakers at the state and federal levels, and would ideally like to see the sea lions relocated, but funding isn’t available. Leraas said only about five sea lions frequented the area in 2000. She estimates that number has since swelled to about 100.

The temporary solution, Leraas said, has been to patrol the docks and haze the animals with audible deterrents or water hoses. But once marina workers leave the area, Leraas said, they climb back on the docks.

The marina has partnered with Smith-Root, a Vancouver, Wash.-based company that uses electronic mats to deter sea lions from hauling out on docks. The company has been in Westport doing field tests.

Though sea lions are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the act also lists a provision that allows for nuisance abatement, said Steve Jeffries, a research scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife who specializes in marine mammals.

The marina’s issue, Jeffries said, isn’t unique. The influx of sea lions to ports along the West Coast is a result of their dwindling food source over the last five years, he said.

“Marinas from Brookings (Oregon) to Neah Bay … all have sea lions in the marinas,” he said. “If they’re allowed to, they'll take over a marina because it’s just an easy place to haul out.”

Jeffries, who has worked with the Westport Marina on the sea lion issue, said the problem is further exacerbated by fishermen who feed sea lions with fish scraps, which is illegal.

“If you get too close to them, they’re going to bite you,” he said. “Ask people if they’d take a selfie with a bear going through the garbage can in their back yard. I don’t think so.”