It took the branding of sea lions at the East End Mooring Basin to raise attention, but Port of Astoria’s Tuesday special meeting drew a fairly large audience of more than 20 people, not including the five commissioners, three staff members and one attorney.

The audience Tuesday was split mostly among Port staff and commissioners, tenants and sea lion advocates, who have been protesting recent branding at the East End Mooring Basin by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The talk of the Steller sea lions, who have noticeably increased in number along the lower Columbia River, dominated the meeting, with a discussion of what the problem really is, the responsibility and the potential solutions.

“Sea Shepherd would entertain funding the construction of a wooden haulout for the sea lions,” said Scott West, who heads up criminal investigations for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, about accomodating sea lions and limiting damage to Port assets. He added that there are lots of people, on land and on cruise ships, who want to see the sea lions, and that Astoria is the closest place north of California to see them up close.

The ODFW has branded roughly 1,400 California sea lions since its program started in 1997 and marked about 38 more March 25 at the East End Mooring Basin, according to branding opponents observing the basin.

Port CEO?Hank Bynaker said that he’s never had to worry about sea lions in his career, but if there can be a solution that takes care of the Port’s liability issues and doesn't hurt sea lions, it’s a win-win.

The Port recently shut down the basin’s causeway over safety and liability concerns.

Herb Florer, director of the Port’s Seaport Division, said families and their children were going too close to the sea lions, and the Port can’t afford to station security staff there all the time.

He also presented a staff report showing damage to finger piers, water spigots and other parts of the mooring basin, and sea lions occupying certain piers and making them slippery with their excrement. A Port skiff and an ODFW?research vessel have so far been swamped by the weight of sea lions, said the report.

Florer said the Port has tried other approved hazing methods such as spraying, but the sea lions get used to it. He added that the Port has looked at such methods as low-voltage electrodes on the dock as a possible deterrent. Under an exception to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, government employees are allowed to harass sea lions to prevent damage to public property, so long as it doesn’t lead to death or serious injury of the animals.

“The Port has liabilities, and that's why the Port has blocked that causeway,” said Commissioner Bill Hunsinger, adding that protesters should be addressing the ODFW, which is doing the branding on Port property.

He said some of the Port’s main issues with the sea lions are damage they cause to finger piers at the mooring basin and the moorage fees the Port is losing from vessels leaving to get away from the animals.

“Either we’re going to have a sea lion marina, or we’re going to take care of the people who live here 365 days a year,” said Hunsinger.

Ninette Jones, a member of the Sea Lion Defense Brigade who engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with Hunsinger during public comment, said that living on one of the largest rivers in North America, there’s got to be a way for humans to live in harmony with the wildlife. She added that San Francisco has been able to make a tidy sum in tourism revenue from sea lion viewing.

Commissioner Larry Pfund said that there’s a tradition of fishing in the region, which the Port has an interest in protecting.

The Port should look into building a dock for transient moorage outside the eastern entrance to the East End Mooring Basin, said Commissioner Floyd Holcom, adding that the harassment of ODFW employees at the basin needs to stop.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its 2012 field report said that sea lions took 0.9 percent of the salmon run between Jan. 1 and June 15, 2012 at the Bonneville Dam. It also reported a 600 percent increase in sea lion – almost entirely Steller – catches of white sturgeon at Bonneville.

In other news:

• Mike Weston, director of business development and operations, presented a potential lease with the Columbia River Bar Pilots at 1270 Flightline Drive, the former Twiss Air Service hangar. The pilots, under Stopwater LLC, would pay $900 a month for about 5,025 square feet of office and hangar space, the rent discounted in exchange for the group’s investment into the building.

• During a report on a proposal to Lektro, Weston said he has so far made three failed offers to the electric vehicle company to lease more land at the Astoria Regional Airport in Warrenton. One was to lease the Twiss hangar, one to lease another and a third for land near the Port’s T-hangars. There is no current proposal on the table, he said.

• Weston reported that a recently discovered overage on the Port’s Pier 2 east renovation project is about $369,000 because of unexpected repairs needed. The Port has a $1 million grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Connect IV grant program, along with its required and previously budgeted $250,000 match. Bergerson Construction is working on the project.


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