KODIAK - Wildlife officials are warning people not to feed Kodiak's Steller sea lions in what they say is a worsening problem.
"Feeding most animals, whether a deer or dolphin or sea lion, teaches the animal that people are a source of food. By feeding them, we are training them to eat from us," said Brent Pristas, special agent with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries enforcement. "They will expect food from us and could get aggressive if not fed."
Wildlife authorities have seen this happen before. Several years ago, a sea lion in Petersburg was shot because it was chasing people on the docks. Last year in Homer, sea lions took over several docks and made them inaccessible.
"In Kodiak, the problem ebbs and flows over time. Right now, the sea lions' levels of aggression are increasing slightly and we just want to stop any potential problem before it develops," said Ken Hanson, assistant special agent in charge at NOAA.
Feeding sea lions is also against federal law and carries a hefty $300 fine with the city of Kodiak.
Steller sea lions are normally not aggressive but playful by nature. But the 2,000-pound animals can throw their weight around to get what they want.
Once a sea lion becomes really aggressive it is hard to rehabilitate it. Moving the animal often proves futile, Pristas said.
"Even if we were to capture and remove an animal that large, they will return," Pristas said.
Steller sea lions are protected under the 1990 Endangered Species Act. Since the 1970s, there has been a 70 percent decline in the Alaska's population. Alaska has about 64,000 Steller sea lions.
Several years ago, a Seattle port made costly efforts to move some problem sea lions to southern Oregon only to have them return again.
The ones that often bask in the sun on a floating dock in Dog Bay fluctuate with the seasons, but in the spring there can be as many as 45 to 50.
Kate Wynne, marine mammal specialist with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks who studies Kodiak's Steller sea lions, said that over the past 10 years, their numbers have increased.
"It used to be just for male seasonal use, now we are seeing year-round males and females," she said.
Wynne believes Kodiak's sea lions first began congregating around the harbor to collect leftovers from the commercial fishing boats. Now Wynne believes it is the scraps from sport fisherman thrown overboard that entice the sea lions.
"Fishermen in Alaska have gone through extraordinary efforts to protect sea lions," Pristas said. "The best way to protect them now is to leave them alone."