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Westport WA sea lions - preventing violent encounters

If you’ve ever walked the docks in any beachside town near Grays Harbors, you’ll be familiar with their barking “arfs” and sun basking poses. Westport has its own crew of barking sea lions who like to stake their claim on a hefty portion of the outer jetties. Signs along the waterfront warn against feeding the sea lions, tourists are likely the only ones who need the signs. Ask any local fisherman in the area and they’ll say, emphatically, that the sea lions are a nuisance: loud and obnoxious.

There are a huge number of sea lions who have taken up residence at the Port of Grays Harbor, Westport Marina on the Washington coast.
There are a huge number of sea lions who have taken up residence at the Port of Grays Harbor, Westport Marina on the Washington coast.
Kristance Harlow -

Why do sea lions choose to park themselves in manmade bays rather than naturally occurring seaside locales? For the same reason people choose to drive to work on paved roads instead of via rough terrain, it’s easier. A more famous example of sea lions in a bay are San Francisco’s Pier 39 Sea Lions. More frequent in the winter, California sea lions have chosen the pier thanks to its prime location. It is near easy-to-capture food but away from natural predators. Sea lions normally sleep on beaches, but have to wake up to move when the tide changes. A jetty moves up and down with the tides, so the sea lions can just keep sleeping.

When well fed and left alone, California sea lions are likely to not be bothered by tourists taking photos or even fishermen walking past them on the dock. If roused, they’ll jump off into the water to get away from humans. Don’t trust their apparently docile and seemingly skittish behavior. Weighing in at over 1,000 pounds and measuring upwards of eight feet in length, they’re not to be messed with. Clashes can easily turn violent with these huge marine mammals.

In recent years, Westport residents have witnessed an increased number of violent encounters between sea lions and people. In 2013, a pet was killed and multiple people have been chased by these massive creatures. In the clashes, people have gotten angry and shot sea lions. According to KATU News, sea lions have turned “up dead with bullet fragments in their skulls.” The local aquarium has been working with the federal government to obtain grants in order to increase awareness about proper behavior around sea lions. Marc Myrsell, co-owner of the Westport Aquarium, told KATU news that the major problem is that the sea lions are being fed by humans.

Sea lions are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. The west coast is well known for their California sea lions. Their range spreads from the southernmost area of Mexico’s Baja California all the way north to the southeast of Alaska. While the California sea lion population was depleted in the 1950s and had reached a low of 10,000, today there are upwards of 30 times as many. According to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, “the species is now at ‘carrying capacity’–near the highest level the environment can sustain–according to wildlife biologists.”

To enjoy viewing California sea lions while protecting yourself and them, follow these simple rules:

  • Stay at least 100 yards away.
  • Don’t stick around watching for more than 30 minutes.
  • Even if you don’t plan on feeding an animal, make sure you do not have any food on you when nearing the sea lions.
  • Do not swim with marine mammals.
  • Realize you are causing a disturbance if sea lions begin to move abruptly or quickly dive into the water, or if they begin getting louder and if multiple of them raise their heads or begin to act aggressively.
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