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Hungry sea lions not all bark – they bite, too

Animals regularly travel along Columbia River to dine on migrating fish
by: Courtesy photo, A handful of sea lions have taken up residence at the St. Helens Marina in recent weeks. But it’s likely a short stay, officials say, as the visiting animals are only here to dine on migrating fish.

A few sea lions spotted lounging in the St. Helens Marina this month have attracted a lot of attention in town. But on May 16, one of the visiting creatures seemed more interested in soaking up the last of the evening sunlight than paying heed to the high-pitched barks from two young girls.

'I think he said hello back,' one of the girls gasped when the sea lion let out a rumbling response.

They could be Steller sea lions but are most likely California sea lions, said Rick Hargrave, deputy administrator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

If they are the California variety, the animals will probably 'start heading back south really soon.'

California sea lions will swim up the Columbia River to feed, following fish runs in the spring. Usually near the end of May, they'll loop around and head back toward the coast, according to Jessica Sall, spokeswoman for ODFW.

Hargrave has never heard of any problems associated with sea lions in St. Helens.

However, in other parts of the state they are not so welcome. That includes Bonneville Dam where some 'problem' sea lions regularly feast on spring Chinook and steelhead salmon. In March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reauthorized the state to capture and kill a limited number of nuisance sea lions at the dam.

ODFW would only get involved with the sea lions in St. Helens if there were serious complaints and the animals turned out to be marked with a brand, indicating they had been feeding at the dam. But even then, Hargrave doesn't think the agency would do anything except wait and watch.

So far the sea lions haven't been much of a bother at the marina.

Lisa Hendrickson, owner of the St. Helens Marina, said one or two sea lions do crawl up on the docks. Sometimes the animals will snag a fish straight from a fisherman's line, she said.

St. Helens resident John Jackson said he has seen as many as 10 sea lions out in the water while he's fishing, but rarely more than that.

It is important not to approach the bulky beasts, Hargrave said. Male California sea lions can weigh more than 800 pounds.

'They're a lot faster than people think they are,' he cautioned. 'They're wild animals. They don't want to be near to you and you don't want to be near to them.'