California sea lions have flooded into the Columbia River in record numbers, thanks to a phenomenal abundance of smelt during a season in which food has been scarce for the voracious pinnipeds just about everywhere else.
The pinniped invasion has overwhelmed the East Mooring Basin in Astoria, Oregon, where 2,340 sea lions were counted recently. That shatters last year’s record count of 1,420 sea lions, and represents “a mind-boggling number,” Bryan Wright, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife,” told OPB News.
Sea lions have commandeered virtually every inch of dock space and are piling on top of one another, because there is not enough space to accommodate all of them, when they’re not foraging for smelt and salmon.
The blubbery mammals are said to be causing damage to docks and making it port authorities to rent or lease slips to boaters.
Some have come to the sea lions’ defense, saying they could represent a tourism boon if people will pay to see them.
Normal sea lion counts in the basin, from late March through May, average fewer than 300.
The Astoria invasion occurs at a time when young sea lions, who are not strong enough to travel long distances to find food, are starving in California, filling care facilities to capacity.
Unusually warm water in the Eastern Pacific, from Mexico to Alaska, is blamed for displacing bait fish populations the sea lions rely on for sustenance.
The so-called “warm blob,” caused in large part by a lack of significant winds and the upwelling those winds typically cause, was blamed for last year’s heat-up, with sea surface temperatures during the spring and summer averaging well above normal.
The phenomenon appears to be evident again this year.
The older and stronger sea lions are lured to the lower Columbia River in part by the early stages of the salmon run, but also by millions of smelt that have returned to the river to spawn.
Harbor seals also are foraging on the bounty. The accompanying image showing 6,000-plus seals grouped near the mouth of the river was captured last month by Steve Jeffries, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The presence of so many sea lions and seals is cause for concern because the developing salmon run could be decimated by so many voracious pinnipeds.
(The Washington agency has a permit to euthanize a certain number of sea lions each year, to protect salmon entering the river mouth at the Washington-Oregon border.)
While many locals are unhappy with the problems being caused by the sea lions inside the basin, a group called the Sea Lion Defense Brigade tells KGW News that perhaps they will turn out to be a valuable tourist attraction.
“People that come to visit these guys are more than willing to spend money on tourism,” Defense Brigade spokeswoman Veronica Montoya said. “On seeing these guys, on visiting these guys.”
Perhaps, but more than likely, the waterfront community probably wishes it could have its docks back.
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