Predator or harmless visitor?

Record numbers of sea lions at piers and recreation areas in The City have prompted port officials to consider new methods of dealing with the weighty mammals.

Boat owners at Hyde Street Pier have been spraying the sea lions with hoses to get them off their docks, and swimmers at Aquatic Park are getting a much closer look at the animals than they’re used to.

“It’s definitely startling to see one pop up next to you,” said Michelle Elchaniz, who swims in the area twice a week.

Researchers at the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County recently observed a record-breaking 1,500 sea lions grouped together at Pier 39. That’s three times more than normal. At one point Sunday, a whale-watching boat went out on the Bay and about 50 barking and biting sea lions quickly used the empty dock space.

The Port of San Francisco is also taking aggressive measures to curb the mammals from overwhelming the surrounding piers. In the next two weeks, it’s installing 200 feet of mesh fencing reaching about 3-feet high around the docks to keep the sea lions away. The Port also
considered the possibility of nonlethal explosives, but decided against it.

“The crab season starts in the middle of November and we’re hoping all the boat activity and the noise will also serve as a deterrent,” Port spokeswoman Renee Martin said.

The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, which oversees Aquatic Park, is hoping that once the sea lions can’t bask on the docks anymore, they will stop getting too close to swimmers.

“They get very close, and the sea lions are much bigger than the swimmers, so it makes sense they’d be scared,” said spokesman Lynn Cullivan of the San Francisco Maritime National Park, which is part of the National Park Service. 

The mammals may seem innocuous, but they can sink their teeth into swimmers. In 2006, Aquatic Park was temporarily closed after multiple swimmers were bitten by what was believed to be a sea lion.

But Elchaniz, 33, who is part of the South End Rowing Club, doesn’t agree with interfering with the animals.

“They’ve popped up and I’ve gotten freaked out, but they’re not doing anything wrong,” she said.

Jim Oswald of the Marine Mammal Center said the barriers could be the most appropriate option because it’s not harmful to marine life.

“They’re just going to find somewhere else to sit in the sun,” he said.

Docking station

The City’s northern waterfront is becoming a haven for sea lions, as they scoop up any space they can find.

Marine mammals

Facts about California sea lions:

  • The animal is playful, noisy and exuberant, often known as the quick-learning, trained seal of the circus and zoo
  • It has a streamlined body, a thick layer of blubber and short, thick fur.
  • There are about 255,000. About 59,000 were born this year in the Channel Islands off Southern California.
  • The Marine Mammal Center rescued some 1,200 sea lions since May, many malnourished. About 20 percent survived.

Sources: Office of Naval Research, Marine Mammal Center

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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