WESTPORT, Wash. - Clashes between California sea lions and humans in Westport are becoming violent, with reports of the sea lions chasing people, killing at least one small pet and turning up dead with bullet fragments in their skulls.
Now, the Westport Aquarium is hoping a new federal grant will stop the tide of violence and curb the sea lion population before it's too late.
The owners of the aquarium recently received $10,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The grant - divided up over the next two years - will be used to provide more public outreach and education on the dangers of feeding the California sea lions and what can be done to keep them from returning in mass.
It's an issue Marc Myrsell says has gotten so out of hand the sea mammals have started following humans and pets walking along the docks in search of their next meal.
"Food is too easy, life is too easy for them," says Myrsell, co-owner of the Westport Aquarium. "We started collecting reports of a lot of negative interactions happening between the sea lions and humans."
Over the past two years, Myrsell has monitored the activities and numbers of California sea lions at the Westport Marina. He says this summer he counted nearly 110, and in several cases he noticed some of the males forgo the mating season altogether, instead sticking around the docks.
Myrsell says he understands why they would stay, and that's where the problem lies.
"If someone brings me free pizza and beer I am not going to leave ever."
Myrsell says all that free fish food tossed in the water from charters and left behind by boaters has negatively affected the behavior of the sea lions. In some cases the sea mammals have become so violent looking for their next free meal that things have turned deadly.
"I have seen them chase humans and jump up on docks," Myrsell says. "One even took a small dog and killed him off the dock."
According to the aquarium owner, the sea lions have also started to beg, tracking boats as they come into the marina or people on the docks carrying bags with their recently caught fish.
For the skeptics who don't view the dozens of sea lions as an issue, Myrsell says all you need to do is look at Astoria, Ore., where 100 sea lions quickly turned into 700.
"What happened in Astoria should serve as a wake up call for Westport," he says. "Our numbers are growing, and nothing is being done about it. If it's allowed to continue humans could get hurt and could get angry and so could the sea lions."
Myrsell says it seems that may already be happening after two sea lions showed up dead on a local beach with bullet fragments in their skulls.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act passed in 1972 makes it illegal to feed sea lions, but Myrsell says inadequate resources and enforcement make it easy for people to ignore the laws and the written reminders posted on the docks.
"We have to educate people about what a California sea lion is," Myrsell says. "We also have Harbor Seals, but Harbor Seals have shown no problems at all. We are dealing with different kinds of sea mammals."
Myrsell says the money from the grant will be spent on flyers and educational materials as well as starting a small bin collection program with boat charters to encourage owners to properly dispose of fish carcasses instead of dumping them in the water.
The aquarium hopes to release the first batch of public flyers soon. Myrsell says they also plan to hold a series of public presentations around the state to coincide with the return of next year's fishing and tourist season.
(Sea lion seen eating discarded fish carcasses off a dock at the Westport Marina. Photo courtesy Marc Myrsell, Westport Aquarium.)