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Beach Balls: A Sea Lion's Worst Enemy

<p>Sea Lions and Seals play on a dock near the waterfront in Astoria.</p>

Alan Sylvestre

Sea Lions and Seals play on a dock near the waterfront in Astoria.

Port of Astoria Executive Director Jim Knight's inbox overflows with suggestions on what to do with the sea lions crowding the docks.

Build a barge offshore for the sea lions. Shoot off fireworks in the direction of the creatures. Rig the docks to tip under the 800-pound pinnipeds' weight. Frighten them with a 16-foot fiberglass fake killer whale.

"Some ideas are worth pursuing and some ideas I just dismiss offhand," Knight said.

Knight and his team tried stringing pennants and construction tape to play on the sea lions' inherent fear of brightly colored, rapidly moving objects. Then the port stumbled across a better, cheaper and more fitting idea: Beach balls.

"The beach balls came into being because a local citizen threw one into a group of sea lions," Knight said. "I suspect they were thinking that the sea lions would play with the beach ball."

Instead, the animals scattered. Soon after hearing the story, the port lined several docks with garish beach balls that tumbled in the surf and wind. The balls bumped against the wood and any hapless sea lions that were brave enough to get close.

"There's something about bright colors and moving objects that distracts them. It's not 100 percent, but it's in the 95 percent range of success," Knight said. "We're just adapting to their behavior and then modifying our approach to see if we can come up with a solution."

Knight and others have long sought a solution to the record number of sea lions that have flocked to Astoria's docks.

"There are kind souls out there that care deeply about the well-being of fellow inhabitants of earth," Knight said. "We have a number of people in town that are protective of them and don't want to see them come to harm. Plus, a number of people feel that human activity has caused this problem to begin with."

But the port can't ignore the $100,000 in damages caused by the sea lions each year, Knight said.

"The other side of that coin are residents of the city that can't stand the sea lions because of the noise and the smell," Knight said. "They defecate on the docks, which is really nasty and corrosive. They foul the water of the harbor because there are so many of them. When they get on boats and can't get off very easily, they panic and boats are damaged by a flopping 800-pound sea lion trying to escape."

As of Tuesday, beach balls lined the docks of Astoria. Only a few intrepid sea lions remained. Knight said he heard a few reports of seals – which are present in Astoria in much lower numbers – playing with the beach balls.

"If I just had a few seals to worry about, I wouldn't have a problem," Knight said with a laugh.

The next step for the Port of Astoria is to install a more permanent solution. The port plans to suspend a line of beach balls above each dock in hopes of keeping the sea lions at bay.

"By the time we get through this testing period they'll be gone anyway," Knight said. "They migrate out during fish seasons, but they'll return back in a few months."

Knight thinks this new solution will work when the sea lions return in August. Nonetheless, he and many others in the community don't want all of the sea lions to disappear from the docks.

"There's a segment of the population that loves to come to Astoria simply to see the sea lions, and I can agree with that. They are fascinating to watch," Knight said. "When I go down there I mesmerize myself by watching them just to learn from them and their behavior."

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Casey Minter