Aquarium owners get grant to help with sea lion population

An increase in sea lion sightings on the public docks in Westport this past summer has some working to decrease their numbers and the creatures’ interactions with humans.

The owners of the Westport Aquarium, Marc and Kathryn Myrsell, are the recent recipients of a $10,000 grant from National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to work on the issue. They will receive the money over the next two years, to combat the California sea lions — of which Myrsell said he counted more than 100 this summer.

Marc Myrsell said incidents of human interaction threaten both the animals who “haulout” on the docks and the human beings who often feed them there.

“They get fed illegally, mind you, or they’re just opportunists and see fish carcasses and what not,” he said, adding they’re not gaining weight from the interactions, but begin to associate food with humans, increasing their attraction to the public docks.

He said there have been incidents of sea lions jumping on docks and chasing people, biting (although rarely), and of pulling both humans and small dogs into the water.

“If there are small or medium size dogs, I can watch them (the sea lions) and they’ll track that dog and see if they will have the opportunity to grab it,” said Myrsell. “Anyone with a dog not on a leash, I tell them, ‘Pick up your dog,’ because it’s quite an issue.”

The Myrsells, who have worked for a couple of years to save or dispose of animals that are found stranded on local beaches, applied for the grant to help with the problem.

They hope to use it to teach sea lion awareness through informative fliers and through public presentations at libraries around the state. They will also be working on a pilot program in which they trade out clean bins with bins filled with fish carcasses with individual boats around the Harbor.

Myrsell said there will always be sea lions, but he hopes to find a way to attract the sea lions to “haulout” on “graveyard docks” or ones that do not have pedestrian access.

“There’s no way that all the sea lions are gonna be chased out and will never come back, there will always be sea lions,” he said. “If we’re lucky, we can get like Newport, Ore., or San Francisco … where we can see them but not on public docks.”

In other news at the aquarium, Myrsell said they recently finished deboning the gray whale carcass found this summer in Grayland. They are currently being cleaned and “cooking” under manure. The aquarium hopes to have an unearthing ceremony for the 40-foot long creature that will be put on display at the museum by Christmas.