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Hungry pinnipeds flock to Columbia

Humans, sea lions and seals alike are sharing in the bounty of the Columbia River.

Flying over the Desdemona Sands during a telemetry survey, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife caught a photo of what looked like fish washed up at low tide. But it was actually more than 6,400 regionally based harbor seals.

It's not unusual, WDFW biologist Steve Jeffries said, to see 4,000 to 5,000 of them hauled out on Desdemona, between the Astoria Bridge and Hammond in the Columbia River, a fraction of the 15,000 regional population from Netarts north to Grays River, Washington.

"They've been moving seasonally into the Columbia River in response to smelt runs forever," he said.

During a Feb. 11 aerial survey, WDFW also counted more than 1,200 California sea lions at the East End Mooring Basin, along with nearly 600 Steller and California sea lions on the South Jetty. On Friday, spokeswoman Jessica Sall of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said, her agency counted 2,340 California sea lions at the East End Mooring Basin.

Increasing numbers of pinnipeds, driven by starvation in California to the healthy smelt and salmon runs in the Columbia River, have put a strain on the Port of Astoria's infrastructure and created enmity between fishers, conservationists and fishery agencies.

In 2010, Pacific smelt, known as eulachon, were marked threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The past two years have marked the first time since the designation that they've been allowed for commercial and recreational harvest. Fisheries managers estimated 200 million smelt returning to the Columbia in 2014 and a similarly strong run this year.

And sea lions reserved their spot at the dinner table.

Their seats are largely at the Port's East End Mooring Basin, which has two docks for boats, and two unofficially for sea lions, that also cover the rock breakwaters surrounding the marina.

When the smelt are gone, an estimated 312,600 adult spring chinook salmon are expected to provide a continuing food source. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report in October showed a decrease in chinook salmon survival from 90 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2014. It compared the decrease in survival with a more than 670 percent increase in sea lion populations counted by ODFW in Astoria between March 15 and May 15 over the same years.

Amid the issues of sea lion predation, the Port has maintained it only wants to keep sea lions from damaging its docks, estimating more than $100,000 in damage to utilities and the docks themselves from sea lions.

It has removed docks, disconnected utilities from the two that the sea lions inhabit and strung brightly colored surveying tape, which has effectively dissuaded the animals from jumping onto the two docks with boats still tied to them.

"There's a public health issue," said Permit and Project Manager Robert Evert about fecal coliform in the water and the mounds of feces with the ringworm fungus that Port staff clean up off docks.

The Port has looked into galvanized steel railings — for years now — to keep sea lions from jumping up on docks. There is 5,000 feet to cover on the Port's three docks at the basin, Operations Manager Matt McGrath said at a March 17 Port Commission meeting. The railings have worked in San Diego, but would cost $50,000. Evert added the Port will be meeting with Smith-Root Fisheries Technology next week, which creates a low-voltage matting for docks that is uncomfortable for sea lions.

For several years, the Sea Lion Defense Brigade has kept a regular presence at the basin, monitoring ODFW's trapping and branding and reporting on its Facebook page. Members snap photos of visitors who drop by to see sea lions and regularly attend Port meetings to testify on behalf of pinnipeds.

"I want to talk about sharing on the second biggest river in North America," Ninette Jones, brigade member, told the Port Commission March 17, after being told she couldn't comment a second time on sea lions.

Brigade members see sea lions as a scapegoat for larger issues, such as pollution, climate change, overfishing and thousands of miles of blocked fish passages. They've claimed that Sea Shepherd Conservation Society once offered to pay for a sea lion haul-out, although the Port has previously denied being offered funding. Regardless of whether they're hauling out on Port docks or their own haul-out, Evert said, letting them on docks is akin to domesticating a wild animal.