Port of Astoria balances tenants, sea lions

Nearby resident agency faces safety, security issue

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With forecasts of the largest run of salmon since record-keeping began in 1938 and sea lions already setting up shop on the docks in the Port of Astoria’s East End Mooring Basin, the agency is looking for answers to accommodate tourists and its tenants.

Both parties flock to the East End Mooring Basin, a shelter for recreational and fishing boats — and sea lions.

“We’ve got a security, safety issue out there,” said Stephen Fulton, who lives on 36th Street in Astoria, about five blocks from the mooring basin. “We’ve got people on that dock, and the railings are unacceptable.”

For some time now, the port has blocked public access to the basin’s causeway because of deteriorating railings and underpinnings and the risk of liability if someone is injured from falling or by a sea lion. Meanwhile, sea lions are causing thousands of dollars worth of damage to the Port’s basin and causing some tenants to relocate.

Port of Astoria property manager Mike Weston said he’d found an example of a raised metal bumper used along docks by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Newport that has successfully dissuaded sea lions from jumping onto them. He said that, at a cost of about $3,500, the port is testing the model on one of its docks to see if it keeps sea lions off.

In the next two months, said Weston, about four port maintenance staff members will work to install the bumpers and fix railings to open the causeway to the public.

When asked by Fulton how the port protects itself against liability, the port’s legal counsel Ronald Guerra said there are statutes that provide immunity against tort liability for public agencies that open their land to the public for recreational purposes, such as looking at sea lions. He added that other agencies have avoided liability using the statutes, even in cases of death.

“Is that what we want on our conscience?” asked Fulton, who added the that the port should get aggressive in enforcing trespassing laws on the causeway.

“We need to keep those people off that dock until we can get repairs on it,” said Bill Hunsinger.

“You can’t prevent stupid, Bill,” said Ric Gerttula, adding that he was adamantly opposed to not letting people go out on the dock.

“I think the quick solution is to let people go out there,” he said, adding that the sea lions bring a lot of action to town. “You’re not going to keep people out. You’re not going to pay for the security to do it.”

Mike Weston said that with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society likely coming again to monitor sea lions at the basin and bringing attention to the issue, there would be a growing number of people coming to the area. He added that the handrails should be fixed before opening the causeway.

Commissioner Jack Bland asked about the person from Sea Shepherd who came to a Port meeting in April to offer assistance in building a dock especially for sea lions.

“Sea Shepherd would entertain funding the construction of a wooden haulout for the sea lions,” said Scott West at the 2013 meeting. He heads up criminal investigations for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The group and others had been protesting the ODFW’s branding of sea lions.

But Weston said no money had ever been offered.

“We’ll lose our docks if we don’t do anything this year,” said Hunsinger about sea lion-related damage. “You’ve got to get them the hell out of there or make it into a sanctuary, one or the other.”