Cute, cud­dly and on the at­tack

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two -

SAN FRAN­CISCO (AP) — Tourists flock to Fish­er­man’s Wharf for the seafood and the stun­ning views of San Fran­cisco Bay, but for many vis­i­tors, the real stars are the dozens of play­ful, whiskered sea li­ons that lounge by the wa­ter’s edge, gulp­ing down fish.

Now a se­ries of sea-lion at­tacks on peo­ple in re­cent months has led ex­perts to warn that the an­i­mals are not as cute and cud­dly as they ap­pear.

“Peo­ple should un­der­stand th­ese an­i­mals are out there not to at­tack peo­ple or hu­mans. But they’re out there to sur­vive for them­selves,” said Jim Oswald, a spokesman for the Marine Mam­mal Cen­ter across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Fran­cisco.

In the most fright­en­ing of the re­cent episodes, a rogue sea lion bit 14 swim­mers this month and chased 10 more out of the wa­ter at San Fran­cisco’s Aquatic Park, a shel­tered la­goon near the bay. At least one vic­tim suf­fered punc­ture wounds.

Some sci­en­tists spec­u­late that the an­i­mals’ ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior is be­ing caused by eat­ing fish con­tam­i­nated by toxic al­gae, or by a short­age of food off the coast. But wildlife ex­perts say even healthy sea li­ons are best left alone.

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in June, a sea lion charged sev­eral peo­ple on Man­hat­tan Beach and bit a man be­fore wad­dling into the wa­ter and swim­ming away. In Berke­ley, a wo­man was hos­pi­tal­ized last spring af­ter a sea lion took a chunk out of her leg.

Last year, a group of sea li­ons took over a New­port Beach ma­rina and caused a vin­tage 50-foot yacht to cap­size when they boarded it. And a life­guard in Santa Bar­bara was bit­ten three times while swim­ming off El Cap­i­tan State Beach.

In Alaska, a huge sea lion jumped onto a fish­er­man’s boat in 2004, knocked him over­board and pulled him un­der­wa­ter; he es­caped with­out se­ri­ous in­jury.

Sea li­ons, which can reach 1,000 pounds, typ­i­cally bite only if they feel threat­ened or cor­nered. And they are more likely to flee than fight if they can es­cape. Re­searchers have de­scribed the most re­cent at­tacks, in which some swim­mers were chased through open wa­ter, as ab­nor­mal be­hav­ior.

Still, with a pop­u­la­tion num­ber­ing about 200,000 and grow­ing, th­ese play­ful, so­cial crea­tures are in­creas­ingly likely to cross paths with hu­mans.

Sea li­ons ac­cus­tomed to the easy pick­ings of seafood scraps in pop­u­lar fish­ing ar­eas can be­come ag­gres­sive to­ward peo­ple if they fear their food is about to be taken away, Oswald said.

The Berke­ley at­tack, for ex­am­ple, was at a ma­rina where fish­er­men dock their boats and feed fish scraps to sea li­ons. Af­ter they ran out of scraps, the sea lion turned ag­gres­sive and bit a crew mem­ber.

At the same time, a food short­age off the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia coast could be driv­ing more hun­gry sea li­ons than usual to San Fran­cisco Bay, said Lynn Cul­li­van, a spokesman for San Fran­cisco Mar­itime Na­tional His­tor­i­cal Park.

Hu­mans could also be con­tribut­ing to ag­gres­sion in sea li­ons in an­other way: Toxic al­gae blooms fed by agri­cul­tural runoff and other pol­lu­tion can lead to the poi­son­ing of marine mam­mals by a chem­i­cal called do­moic acid, which can cause brain dam­age. The Marine Mam­mal Cen­ter treated more than 200 sea li­ons for do­moic acid poi­son­ing last year.

Ve­teri­nar­i­ans at the cen­ter be­lieve the brain dam­age caused by the poi­son could have led to the ma­raud­ing an­i­mal’s er­ratic be­hav­ior in Aquatic Park, Oswald said, though they can­not be sure with­out ac­tu­ally ex­am­in­ing the sea lion.

So far park rangers have not been able to track the at­tacker down. Nev­er­the­less, the la­goon where the at­tacks oc­curred has been re­opened to swim­mers, though with new signs warn­ing peo­ple to stay away from sea li­ons.

“Peo­ple who swim with the li­ons — though I’m sure that’s nice — it’s prob­a­bly not the best thing to do,” Oswald said. “It’s a wild an­i­mal. And you want to keep them wild.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

Poised to strike? A cou­ple takes a pic­ture of the sea li­ons at Pier 39 in San Fran­cisco. San Fran­cisco may have to re­think its re­la­tion­ship with its most vis­i­ble wildlife at­trac­tion af­ter one rogue sea lion bit at least 14 swim­mers and chased 10 more out of the wa­ter at a nearby la­goon last month.

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