When men and women in orange wet suits showed up at the East End Mooring Basin and started prodding at California sea lions caught in floating pens, some people wondered whether the mammals were being executed.
Instead, they were researchers from the Marine Mammal Center were taking urine and blood samples to test for a pathogen that causes kidney disease.
Weve been doing sampling from Southern California up to Washington, said Denise Greig, a researcher with the center in Sausalito, Calif. We do have to sedate them for the urine sample, because it involves a catheter.
Greig said she eased the concerns of a few people who came by and asked if she was killing sea lions.
The researchers were testing for leptospira, a strain bacteria that causes leptospirosis in humans and animals. It is a severe bacterial infection that can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress and even death.
The center has been gathering samples from sea lions for the last three or four years, Greig said. Last fall, there was an outbreak of leptospirosis in Astoria, so now is a good time for researchers to check the health of the sea lions, before they migrate south to Californias Channel Islands for mating season.
They will test between 10 and 20 sea lions in Astoria, each sampling taking about 15 to 20 minutes.
Since the 1990s, weve been down there trapping and marking sea lions, said Rick Hargrave, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which assisted the researchers.?The researchers have been up at the dams, but they decided there are more sea lions in Astoria.
ODFW?has specific rules they must follow before killing a California sea lion. Before lethal injection, the sea lion must:
Be identifiable through natural or applied features (usually a brand)
Have been observed eating salmon in the Bonneville Dam area between Jan. 1 and May 31 of any year
Have been observed on a total of any five days (consecutive days, days within a single season or days over multiple years) between Jan. 1 and May 31
Have been subjected to but not responded to nonlethal hazing
Hargrave said that if a sea lion with a brand was captured in a pen at the East End Mooring basing, arrangements could be made to have the animal shipped to an aquarium or to Bonneville for lethal injection. He said that to his knowledge, only two sea lions have been put down in Astoria, both in 2010.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently authorized the killing of up to 92 sea lions a year through May 2016.