Sea lions loitering on boat steps, barking in Newport Harbor has locals irked and officials considering new deterrents

by in News

NEWPORT BEACH — Sea lions loitering, barking through the night, and crushing boat swim steps and private docks have prompted city officials to look at humane and effective ways of keeping the animals under control, particularly as their active season nears.

The Newport Beach Harbor Commission held a public workshop last week to address sea lion interactions as part of a review of updates to its local harbor codes. The March 13 meeting also included a presentation by officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on humane ways of interacting with the sea lions. NOAA representatives included Justin Viezbicke, marine mammal stranding coordinator; Laura McCue, a fishery biologist; and law enforcement officer Marcos Nieves.

“The animals are in their natural environment,” said Kurt Borsting, the city’s harbor master. “We want to make sure boat owners and residents act responsibly and don’t create an invitation for the animals.”

Newport Harbor has 600 public mooring spots along with thousands of privately docked boats. There are also hundreds of waterfront homes on Balboa, Bay, Collins, Harbor and Lido islands — many of which have private docks that give sea lions ample space to haul out after catching a belly full of fish.

Since July 1, the Harbor Department has logged 185 service calls related to sea lions. They range from assisting boat owners or dock owners with a sea lion on their property to advising property owners that they need to deploy deterrents to cut down on noise and nuisance. In most cases, boat owners quickly made the needed corrections, Borsting said. If boat or property owners don’t respond within seven days of being advised, they are subject to a $100 municipal fine. Only five fines have been issued since July 1, he said.

Sea lions are most active in April and May, Borsting said, so he and the harbor commissioners wanted to get a plan in place.

Past efforts, such as statues of snarling plastic coyotes, five-gallon yellow buckets, air dancers and plastic fencing around open boat and dock areas have not scared off the sea lions in Newport Harbor. The same goes for Dana Point Harbor, where the county has spent thousands of dollars to repair broken docks and the Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol is routinely called out to boats perilously close to sinking when multiple large sea lions clamber aboard.

Sea lions are federally protected. Therefore, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, any method to control them that could be harmful or dangerous is prohibited. This means weapons, sharp or pointed objects, entangling devices, tainted bait and guard dogs are not permitted.

To get a better view of what other harbor management does, Borsting and the commissioners took a trip to Oceanside Harbor. The harbor there shares the same challenges found in Newport and Dana Point.

“They’ve established a dock specifically intended for the sea lions — it encourages them to stay off public and private property,” Borsting said. “It’s had some success but unfortunately the noise issue has been amplified.”

Similar to Dana Point Harbor, where many sea lions gather on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol dock, the large groupings of sea lions in Oceanside, on one dock, have become a magnet for visiting tourists, harbor walkers, kayakers and standup paddleboarders. That brings its own set of public safety issues.

While NOAA officials suggest gentle deterrents such as noise-makers or water jets, they also gave a thumbs-up to a product called Sealstop, said Commission Vice Chairman Scott Cunningham. The product is made from plastic spinners that can be attached to a boat’s swim step, gunwales and decks.

“It has a sort of ‘stepping on Lego’ quality,” Borsting said. “They don’t puncture or injure the animal. They meet the humane standard.”

“NOAA did a great job educating all to the do’s and don’ts with regard to the large sea lion population,” Cunningham said. “The sea lion issue is not going away. We continue to see our water quality improve and with that a much healthier sea life.”

In upcoming meetings, the commission will look at other issues related to harbor codes including dumping of gray water, the number of allowable overnight stays for boats in public moorings, live-aboard permits and updated requirements on the containment of discharge waste.