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Too Cute to Shoot?

The adoring public may have a problem with what San Francisco has in store for its troublesome invaders, the sea lions.



On a wet September morning about an hour after the sun rose over San Francisco's Hyde Street Harbor, two men carried a kennel onto the Kitty Kat, a tour boat bound for the Farallon Islands. They placed the container at the end of a row of six more that each carried the same cargo — a frightened young sea lion peeking from behind a barred window.

Once malnourished and sick, the yearling sea lions had stranded themselves up and down the California coast. Some had been pierced with fishing hooks or stingray spines; most had been found near starvation. The female runt in the kennel on the end had been picked up in Monterey Bay after Wayne Fenton, a former army tank commander, found her with a gunshot wound to her left eye.

Fenton had named his sea lion Breadstick, and sponsored her recovery at the Marine Mammal Center's hospital and research center in Sausalito, where all of the sea lions on board the Kitty Kat had been treated and nursed back to health. He had come all the way from Mountain View in a rental car to see Breadstick off.

Today, the sea lions would be returned to the wild in what seemed like a victory for everyone involved. The release would provide an uplifting experience for the sightseers, and thanks to the Marine Mammal Center, the sea lions would get a second chance that nature alone would have never permitted.

But there was something going on at Hyde Street Harbor that morning that seemed to detract from the triumphant atmosphere. Full-grown male sea lions — members of the same species as the rescued yearlings — were everywhere.

About 50 of them had spilled over from their traditional home at Pier 39 and hurled themselves up on the docks at the Hyde Street Pier. Now they were wiggling around, barking raucously, and stinking like fish guts.

Hedley Prince, the Port of San Francisco's harbormaster and the man responsible for the upkeep of this dock, has a word for these animals: infestation.

Back in August, the sea lions began arriving en masse and took over several wooden harbor fingers meant for boat docking; still more of them seem to show up every day. As the West Coast population of California sea lions explodes, experts say the environment will be unable to support them much longer. Recently, thousands have died of starvation.

Meanwhile, sea lions have bitten and bumped swimmers, poached fishermen's catches, sunk boats, and damaged docks. A growing number of people in San Francisco would like to see the nuisance creatures banished, but under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), there are strict rules for dealing with them. They can't be intentionally killed or injured, and without proper permits, they can't even be scared away.

Prince has set out to secure those permits, which will eventually enable him to ignite seal bombs (underwater firecrackers that send a "concussion wave" that stuns fish and terrifies sea lions) near the animals and shoot them in the hindquarters with rubber buckshot. But the potential for a public relations disaster is high, especially considering that the sea lion–loving public — unaware of the mayhem that these opportunistic animals create — seems intent on saving each and every one.

As the Kitty Kat cruised out of the harbor and past the adorable infestation, a large bull arched its back and lazily tilted its head skyward, as if to say I'm not going anywhere.

These days, the overpowering stench of fishy sea lion excrement perpetually wafts around Pier 39, which a record number of adult sea lions have made their home base.

Heads just visible above the water, the animals routinely circle the overcrowded, low-floating docks, six of which need to be replaced because of the damage the sea lions have caused. Every now and then, one bursts from the water in a gawky attempt to socialize or dry off. Others growl and hiss at the wet intruder (bizarrely, they hate getting sprayed) and commence play fights for the limited space. Tourists apparently believe there is no such thing as too many photographs of such behavior.

What visitors rarely notice is that because the designated sea lion territory at Pier 39 can no longer accommodate the population, some have migrated to nearby docks intended for boats. A Marine Mammal Center survey recently numbered the sea lions at Pier 39 at an all-time high — 1,585.

There are several theories for why they've arrived this year in such overwhelming numbers. The population of California sea lions on the West Coast appears to be growing at an annual rate of 5.6 percent and now totals about 238,000 (that's a minimum estimate, and fishermen swear there must be far more). To put that in context, there are just 40,000 Steller sea lions, and only about 500 of those endangered creatures live in California waters.

California sea lions are multiplying faster than their fellow pinnipeds because they're highly intelligent, opportunistic, and adaptable creatures. If you've ever seen what you believed to be a seal balancing a ball on its nose at a circus, you were looking at a California sea lion. The Navy even trained them to approach underwater enemies from behind and attach clamps to their legs, allowing the swimmers to be pulled from the water.

With their whiskers, doe eyes, and chubby, wriggly bodies, sea lions are undeniably cute. They are sometimes classified as "charismatic megafauna," a term for a large animal species with popular appeal that environmentalists can use to further their conservation goals.

Of course, California sea lions aren't endangered, and there's little indication they ever have been. They are, however, protected under the MMPA, which means that nobody can bother them, and applications to remove them require an obscene amount of paperwork. It's an undertaking that gets a harbormaster wondering whether it would make more sense to simply let the beasts have their way.

Back in 1989, when California sea lions first began to arrive at Pier 39, that option became attractive, particularly after the animals became a tourist attraction. Their cherubic faces became synonymous with San Francisco sightseeing, and eventually a Webcam was set up to record their activities at all hours. Although the Port of San Francisco feared that the sea lions would eventually expand their territory, it opted not to spend money on precautions in the construction of the nearby Hyde Street Harbor, which opened to recreational boats, seasonal fishing vessels, and the public in 2001.

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