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SF Sea Lions Still Missing; But Plans Hatching to Keep Next Year’s Crowd in Check

It’s hard to know what we should worry about San Francisco’s missing 1,700 sea lions. That they (and the popular tourist destination they’ve become) disappeared almost completely? Or should we blame the media for overblowing a normal seasonal swing, as Newsweek does? Or should we be more anxious that the population there was about double the usual number, which the area can’t really support?

 Harbormaster Hedley Prince think the story has gotten absurd media play considering their numbers always dip in the winter. He’s more worried about keeping the Hyde Street Pier clear of sea lions and wants to get permission to try a gentler method than electric shocks and pellets: he wants trained dogs to chase them away.

But, meanwhile, like everyone else, he can’t figure out why they vacated so completely. “This should be their happy time,” Prince says, noting that  a herring spawn means there’s plenty of food. But these California sea lions have always been inscrutable. No one knew why they showed up in 1989, why they reached record numbers this year. “Suddenly in August they all showed up,” says Prince. “It was the craziest thing.”

A dozen or so sea lions are still out in the area of Pier 39 and the Hyde Street Pier, Prince says. (You see the live webcam, though it’s pretty boring right now.) Three have fishing lines around their necks, the Marine Mammal Center says, which is trying to rescue them. The big males took off to mating grounds first, leaving the young and old, Prince says. The numbers went from 1,701 in October to 982 a month later, then down to 20 a week after that, the Marine Mammal Center says. (A stunning 1,183 or 69% of them were treated at the center. Humans deliberately caused at least 8% of injuries, including shooting one in the eye.)

Not everybody loves the sea lions, at least not in this year’s numbers. The San Francisco Weekly reported on fishermen, swimmers and boaters who blame them for poaching fish, biting people and sinking boats, respectively. They groan at the thought of applying for a permit to harass them out of the area. The process is long and the Marine Fisheries Service only approves certain measures, like rubber bullets, many of which seem “brutal” says Prince.

“If someone started shooting sea lions out here, my God there would be a riot,” Prince says wisely. When someone showed up with a dog and the sea lions took off, he got the idea of using a trained herding dog to patrol the pier. After all, border collies, dog silhouettes and swans herd Canadian geese away from parks. Karelian bear dogs keep grizzlies from dumpster diving out west and black bears from trouble in New Jersey.  Why not a dog for the sea lions? It would be cheaper than the barriers he’s putting up now and probably easier on the sea lions, too. He’s thinking either a corgi or Portuguese Water Dog, but so far, he says, federal officials aren’t returning his calls.

Check out this Animal Tourism map of where to see seals and sea lions

Here’s where you can see wildlife out West

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