Officials thought it was OK to shoot at them with paintball gun during construction
Miscommunication between Crescent City Harbor officials and federal regulators may have caused a harbor subcontractor to inappropriately fire a paintball gun at sea lions.
After receiving several 911 phone calls about a man in a rowboat shooting sea lions with a paintball gun in Crescent City Harbor last week, a sheriff's commander paid a visit to the harbor office.
Richard Young, the harbor's CEO and harbormaster, told the Del Norte County sheriff's commander that there was nothing to worry about. In fact, the paintball gunner was hired by the harbor district to deter seals and sea lions from occupying the inner boat basin during steel pile drilling, since that noisy operation could harm the animals, Young told the commander.
Using a paintball gun was just one of several approved deterrence methods that Young understood to be legal after finding a list on the National Marine Fisheries Service's website.
"The paintball gun is news to me," said Ann Garrett, North Coast branch supervisor in the NMFS Arcata office, on Wednesday. "Our approval was that they were to shut down operation if they saw a marine mammal entering the harbor."
On Wednesday, Young said he knew that drilling must stop if seals or sea lions enter the inner boat basin, but "I thought we had the ability to keep them out of there using legal methods," he said. If that's not the case, "I'm surprised," he said.
The list of methods on the NMFS website includes electric fencing, some pyrotechnics, water hoses, cattle prods, mace, sling shots, toy water guns, and yes, paintball guns.
But those methods don't apply to the current harbor work, Garrett said.
"We thought we were doing the right thing; we're not trying to hide anything," Young said.
Fortunately, the harbormaster said there is time to reconcile the miscommunication as pile driving will not resume until Jun. 1.
If Garrett is right and marine mammals have to leave the harbor by their own volition, that could create major delays for the already time-strapped task of installing around 170 steel piles this summer and fall, Young said.
"We were going for no harassment on this type of project," Garrett said, explaining that there should be no active means of harassing an individual pinniped to leave the basin.
That was not the understanding of Frank Galea, the wildlife biologist hired by the harbor district (with Stover Engineering acting as its agent) to monitor the inner basin during drilling for marine mammals and also to get them out when possible.
"We are in harassment mode," Galea said about his paintball operation during drilling last week. "We are making it hard for them to hang out in the inner boat basin."
Galea said he could be using seal bombs, a small explosive resembling a firecracker, but paintball guns and chasing the sea lions in a row boat had been working fine thus far.
"It's relatively effective and we are not trying to hit them in the eye or anything - just harass them away as best as we can," Galea said.
More pinniped problems
During a time when the harbor appears to be attracting more sea lions than in years past, Harbor District officials have been receiving complaints from the Chart Room restaurant and South Beach Outfitters about the sea lion encroachment.
"They are taking over the picnic tables and the entire area and they are politely defecating on the sidewalk, which causes an odor,"
Young said at a February Harbor Commission meeting. "Most harbors on the West Coast have a very similar problem with sea lions; when they show up and take over an area, it's hard to get rid of them."
In February, Young said that Chart Room staff members had been keeping the noisy beasts at bay with a hose, which he understood to be an approved method.
That assumption is no longer certain.
"We have always done things to keep the sea lions down; they get on our sport docks and they break the water lines, electrical lines; they cost us a lot of money so we try to chase them off to protect our property," Young said Wednesday. "We've never done anything lethal or harmful."
The sea lion issue surfaced again during this week's Harbor Commission meeting Tuesday.
Craig Strickhouser, captain and owner of the Tally Ho II charter boat, told commissioners his dock is overrun by sea lions. He plans to start recreational salmon fishing in May and "I need my dock back before we start," he said.
"Sea lions have just overgrown that place and it's just a matter of time before somebody gets hurt," Strickhouser said.
Last summer, Strickhouser installed an electrical fence around his dock, a method approved on the NMFS list, which worked until the fence was destroyed by a storm.
"We absolutely have to stop fish cleaning in the harbor because that's what draws them," Young told the Tally Ho captain.
Harbor officials are worried about the liability of the sea lions, as tourists are prone to get closer to the mammals than could be safe - or legal.
"California offers a unique opportunity for the public, to view these wild animals in their natural habitat," state the NMFS "Seal and Sea Lion Viewing Guidelines."
"However, efforts by the general public to closely approach or otherwise interact with seals and sea lions can lead to harassment, which is illegal under the (Marine Mammal Protection Act) and the (Endangered Species Act)," the guidelines state.
Harbor officials will continue to address what they can and cannot do to fix the sea lion problem.
"I don't think electrical fences and tourists and children are going to mix," Young said.
Reach Adam Spencer at email@example.com.