Northside SF  

The Final Word
There goes the neighborhood

By Bruce Bellingham

You may have heard that those world-famous barking and belching sea lions of Pier 39 are arriving on the waterfront at a staggering number these days. There are usually 300 counted in the sea mammal census. But last month, there were 1,600. Although welcome by the managers of touristy Pier 39, the beasts are finding their way to other docks at Fisherman’s Wharf – even repopulating Seal Rock at the ocean – and making more than a little trouble for the locals. Swimmers from the Dolphin Club say they’ve been bitten. At the Hyde Street Pier, harbormaster Hedley Prince says the sea lions, which weigh up to 1,000 pounds, have taken up residence to wreak havoc.
“This is not a tourist attraction,” Prince explains. “We have a six-million dollar commercial fishing facility here that was built in 2001. The sea lions are making a mess of it.” The operation includes 62 floating docks.

In hopes of curtailing the sea lions’ interference with commercial fishermen, creature-friendly fencing is being installed. Prince is not optimistic about its success. Sea lions are notoriously stubborn. They’re fin-footed mammals, that is, pinnipeds. But they’re not pinheads. 

“They’re very smart,” says Prince. “Once they find out it’s not going to hurt them, they’ll get around it. They’re not vicious, they’re just persistent.” 
Once settled, they don’t want to leave. They’re like relatives who come for the holidays and stay through the summer. 
They’re not wonderful house-guests. The sea lions defecate all over the decks. As if fishermen don’t have enough trouble these days. 
What’s the reason for this unprecedented population explosion? Some of us think the beasts got their mitts on the stimulus package before the rest of us did. 
“This is a safe neighborhood for them,” says Sheila Chandra, the harbormaster for the past 24 years at Pier 39. “There’s plenty of food here; the young ones are thriving as the big guys go south to mate.”
Just like college students on spring break.
“El Niño may bring even more sea lions,” she says. “We have hired sea lion ambassadors, people who will try to keep the sea lions off the other docks. They’ll use herding boards [sounds like something from Catholic school] to drive them off the docks. We’ll even use water hoses to control them. They don’t like that.”
Prince says the Hyde Street Pier is fitting a boat that will pump seawater to intimidate the beasts.
“They don’t stay intimidated for long,” he says. “The best we can hope for is that nature will run its course as the sea lions run out of food.”
Back in the 1990s, Chandra says she received all sorts of ideas from around the world about how to get rid of the sea lions. They included electric shocks to scattering broken glass on the docks. Not nice. The Cousteau Society offered an experimental mechanical great white shark to spook the pinnipeds. She declined.
Some suggest sea lion should be on the menu at Scoma’s. By the way, sea lions love anchovies. They may go begging for leftover Caesar salads at the kitchen doors of the many Italian restaurants in the Wharf. They’ve got the moxie to do it.
“I’m more worried about people getting to the sea lions, not the other way around,” Prince adds lugubriously. “I heard about a woman who got onto one of our docks and decided to lie down with one of them. I’ve asked the Port for a security guard,  but so far, no action.”
With all the barking on the dock of the bay, the noise is palpable. Sea lions love to be heard. They blather. They often emulate Fox News. They have no manners. They snarl, they bite, they chew with their mouths open. They smell. The current political discourse again comes to mind.
But millions of people love them. A poll indicates that the sea lions are the number one reason that visitors come to Pier 39. That’s money in the bank.
The daily din on the docks is music to the ears for Sue Muzzin,
the director of public relations at Pier 39. 
“I love these little critters,” says Muzzin. “I can hear them all day. The sea lions have my Seal of Approval.”
I thought I wrote the jokes around here.
Truth is, the sea lion problem on the waterfront is not a joke.

Bruce Bellingham is author of
Bellingham bythe Bay. He’s one of the locals who actually likes to go to Fisherman’s Wharf on occasion. If he’s not on his Land Lubber Line, he may be reached at


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