The smelt are back in the Columbia River — and so are the sea lions trying to eat them.
And the Port of Astoria is once again providing a resting place for hundreds, if not thousands, of sea lions at the East End Mooring Basin.
The only thing staff has done is to protect the Port’s property and get the sea lions off the docks, said Executive Director Jim Knight during a meeting Tuesday. He estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 sea lions head Astoria’s way for fishing season.
Until the mid-1970s, California sea lions were seldom seen anywhere on the Columbia River. But surveys as recently as 2006 conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated up to 1,200 California sea lions and 1,000 Steller sea lions in the 140 miles of the lower Columbia River.
The meeting was absent any activists from the Sea Lion Defense Brigade, and included a few tenants from the basin. The Port’s Permit and Projects Manager Robert Evert reported on what the Port is doing to prevent sea lions from jumping on and damaging docks at the basin. The causeway there is still open to foot traffic, although certain docks are off limits for safety reasons.
Evert described the Port’s effort to gather input from sea lion experts — people with Ph.D.s at the end of their names, he said.
“The consensus of these experts is allowing the sea lions to continue to inhabit our docks is counterproductive to the species,” said Evert, “and that their preference is to see the sea lions on the breakwaters, on the rock breakwaters, because otherwise we wind up in a situation where we’re domesticating these animals.”
In an effort to keep sea lions off the docks, Evert said the Port has explored several strategies, including:
• Galvanized pipes placed 18 inches high running along the Port’s docks.
• Colorful surveying ribbons, which irk sea lions with their noise, color and wind action. The strategy proved temporarily successful last year. Evert added that the Port’s looking into the use of banner rope with attached pennants.
• Matting created by the Smith-Root Fisheries Technology that carries a low electrical current uncomfortable for sea lions.
It’s also applying for Oregon State Marine Board grants to replace and repair docks. Evert said the Port has spent about $100,000 on repairs to damaged floats, as well as moving some floats from the basin to North Tongue Point.
“In the process of protecting Port property, we’re pushing the problem off onto someone else,” said Knight.
But the Port doesn’t want to be wildlife managers, he said, and it needs to empty the docks, market them to potential tenants and create what he, Evert and Dave Densmore, a commercial fisherman who moors at the basin, mentioned as one of the best deterrents to sea lions: human activity.