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Oregon Solves Sea Lion Problem with Car Dealership Staple

Apparently, the bright “air dancers” scare the marine mammals.

Sea lions sunbathing on the Port of Astoria docks. (Photo: Eli Duke/CC BY-SA-2.0)

Finally, after attempts spanning a year of effort, Oregon’s Port of Astoria has solved one of its most persistent troubles: the hordes of sea lions swarming its docks.

The surprising solution? Air dancers—those colorful, inflatable giants posted outside car dealerships around the country. Apparently, the sea lions are terrified of them.

The novel attempt at animal population control was necessitated by sea lions’ federally protected status. As The Daily Astorian reports, the sea lion population had dwindled to just 10,000 individuals when they were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Now, officials estimate the sea lion population could be as high as 300,000, and the animals now regularly swarm Oregon’s Columbia River, where the Port of Astoria is located. According to OregonLive, officials have noted a 670 percent increase in the area sea lion population from 2010 to 2014, and the sea lions particularly love the port docks.

The Port of Astoria website explains its appeal for the animals thusly: 

“Port docks are much softer than the jagged jetties and make a much more comfortable sunbathing pad. Port docks also rise and fall with the tides so a sea lion that pops up for a respite at low tide will not be inconvenienced by rising waters.” When you put it that way, it’s hard to blame the sea lions.”

Unfortunately, the sunbathing sea lions pose quite a nuisance for the humans around the port. Fishermen struggle to cope with crowded waterways and docks, stolen catches, and depleted salmon stocks. Houseboat residents and nearby neighbors are kept up by incessant barking. They damage the docks, and they poop everywhere. The problem has led Port officials to spend the past year devising novel strategies to scare the sea lions off.

The thing now terrifying sea lions. (Photo: M01229/C.C. 2.0)

 

First, electrified mats were placed on the docks in April 2015. The mats, which have been used for the same purpose in California, emitted a low voltage that was intended to irritate the sea lions into moving after a few seconds. The sea lions, unfortunately, did not mind the minor shocks.

A few months later, the Port deployed a fake killer whale, attempting to pilot it around the docks while playing killer whale sounds. Launched in front of hundreds of observers, the 32-foot fiberglass whale was promptly capsized by a wake, forcing its pilot to bail. Despite the failure, Port staff were optimistic, with Robert Evert telling KATU, “They got very quiet, and we observed several sea lions leaving the area. They actually swam around the break water and went out into the open river, so it’s not a complete fail.” Not a complete fail, but pretty close.

Now, the Port officials think air dancers, which only cost around $200, may be a cost-effective deterrent. Evert explained to KOIN that sudden movement and bright colors—which the air dancers provide in spades—are known to deter sea lions, and so far the theory seems to be holding out.

However, the solution may not be permanent. KATU reported that onlookers observed the sea lions returning to the docks when the air dancers were turned off, and even Evert is cautiously optimistic, telling KPTV, “One thing about the sea lions is they’re very intelligent animals. So if they realize these are not a harm or threat to them, it’s possible they’ll get back on the docks.” So, while the air dancers are performing their elaborate, sea-lion-terrifying dance, local high school students will construct and test welded steel railings to prevent the sea lions from getting back onto the docks.

Time will tell if this latest attempt will finally drive the sea lions away from the Port of Astoria docks. And if the air dancers don’t pan out, it’ll be exciting to see what the Port thinks of next.