Rowdy Sea Lions Take Over Calif. Yacht Harbor

Rob Schmitz of member station KPCC reports on a group of sea lions that are causing a great deal of damage in Newport Harbor in Southern California. The territorial pinnipeds have taken over some docks and even some boats, and experts are unsure how to best get rid of them.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

What a mess. In the normally blissful Southern California harbor of Newport, a group of rowdy sea lions are sinking boats, attacking people who invade their space and keeping people up all night with their barking. Reporter Rob Schmitz of member station KPCC says there's not much anyone can do to stop them.

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

A tour of Newport Harbor these days is like waking up in a frat house after an all-night keg party. There is a palpable trail of wanton destruction.

Mr. DAN BARIZOO(ph): See how they got the chain link up? They bit through that. And you can see on the dock here they--See the nails they put up to kind of deter them?

SCHMITZ: As Dan Barizoo maneuvers his boat between the sailboats and yachts moored off the Balboa Peninsula, he points out barriers once erected but now destroyed. The perpetrators are much worse than rowdy frat boys; they're a stubborn gang of unruly sea lions that have, says Barizoo, managed to take over the harbor this summer. Eighteen of them, weighing in from 200 to 800 pounds each, piled on to a 37-foot sailboat like a marine mammal rugby team, sinking the vessel within minutes. Now folks are doing all they can to protect their boats. Today, Barizoo points to a boat whose bow shines with the metallic glimmer of stainless-steel spikes.

Mr. BARIZOO: And see this guy tacked down these nail strips up here? I guess if you got hit with a couple nails every now and then, they're gonna think twice.

SCHMITZ: As Barizoo floats past what's left of a six-foot dingy broken in two by one of the creatures, he comes face to face with a 400-pound black sea lion, proudly propped up on a bait barge who, upon seeing the boat, bobs his head up and down and barks.

(Soundbite of sea lion barking)

SCHMITZ: The creature shakes its blubber and jumps into the water.

(Soundbite of sea lion hitting the water)

SCHMITZ: Moments after the boat leaves, the animal jumps back onto its perch. Barizoo rolls his eyes and sighs. Another guy shaking his head is Dennis McCowan(ph).

Mr. DENNIS McCOWAN: I do think they are becoming a bit more aggressive than they used to be. They bare their teeth and growl at you if you tell them to, you know, get off the boat.

SCHMITZ: And at night, they bark, loudly. The harbor patrol says it's received more than 100 calls this summer from residents who can't sleep through the noise. The Newport Beach Harbor Commission has taken up the issue, but the city's stuck. Sea lions are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protect Act, says Assistant City Manager Dave Kipp.

Mr. DAVE KIPP (Assistant City Manager, Newport Beach): There's very little that we can do to sea lions, and the question is: Is there a way we can make sure that their stay is fairly temporary?

SCHMITZ: One proposal is to work with fishing outfitters to ensure that the tons of bait they use is secured in tight containers the sea lions can't get to.

(Soundbite of cash register)

SCHMITZ: Back at Newport Harbor, Baron Finneran(ph) rings up a customer at his bait shop. Finneran thinks the Harbor Commission's solution doesn't go far enough.

Mr. BARON FINNERAN (Bait Shop Owner): They do make concussion bombs that you can light and throw underwater and when they go off, it's supposed to scare the seals away for when you're fishing. You know, there's stories of people even back in the day that would sit there with their 12-gauge and pick them off. They were that bad to certain fishermen.

SCHMITZ: A harbor patrol officer said he'd heard of residents hiring people to shoo the sea lions away; he called them shooers.

Stranger solutions have been attempted elsewhere. Nine years ago, Seattle attached an anchor to an underwater Fiberglas killer whale to try and scare their sea lions away; they called it Fake Willy. It didn't work. In Seattle, as in Newport Beach now, when it comes to sea lions and humans fighting over turf, it appears the sea lions have the upper flipper.

(Soundbite of sea lion barking)

SCHMITZ: For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Newport Beach.

CHADWICK: Love those sea lions. DAY TO DAY will be right back.

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