NEWPORT, Ore. (AP) — Long before you reach the Bayfront, you can hear the ruckus on Bachelor Row — the stretch of docks below Port Dock One where male sea lions gather for rowdy R&R.
Their antics draw thousands of people, not only visitors, but also locals who often show the sight to guests from out of town.
"We bring everyone down here," said Mike Franklin, who brought Bend residents Mitch and Vanessa Phillips for a visit on Presidents Day. "It is part of the local Bayfront."
But now, there's fear the docks are about to be lost.
Old age, wear and tear by the half-ton creatures and the coast's stormy weather have taken a toll. The once-lengthy expanse of docks is down from about 120 feet to about 30. Once that's lost, it may be gone for good, said Stan Pickens, owner of Bayscapes Gallery and Coffee House.
"If that dock is lost, then the grandfather clause that permits these docks will be lost as well, and it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild them," said Pickens, who is heading up the Save the Sea Lion Docks effort.
But not everyone is so sure the docks should be replaced. Some say the docks were never intended for the sea lions in the first place.
The docks belong to the Port of Newport. They were built about 18 years ago as transit docks for recreation boaters, Pickens said. But the docks never caught on with boaters, and about 15 years ago the male sea lions "found it was a good place to haul out and be with their buddies." The males congregate on the docks August through June. In the summer, they migrate to California to breed with the females who stay south year-round.
When the sea lions cram the docks, so too do visitors on Port Dock One.
"It's a very important economic thing to Newport tourist-wise," Pickens said. "During the summertime, thousands of people come just to see them. The reason they are drawn is the intimacy. They can look right down at them, and these half-ton creatures look right back at you. They are aware of the public.
"I think that is one of the reasons they come there. It is far enough away that it is safe. It's not going to interfere with their life, but close enough you can look right at them."
But it's not all warm and fuzzy.
Port Dock One was never meant to be a pedestrian dock, said Don Mathews, a Port commissioner and owner of Marine Discovery Tours. He's recused himself from the discussions about whether to save the docks to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
"That Port Dock One is a pier for fishing vessels," Mathews said. "That's what it was built for. It wasn't built for people to fish and crab off of, and it wasn't built for people to look at sea lions from. Primarily, the distant-water fleet ties to the pier, and the fishermen drive out on the pier to access their boats. They back out to load groceries."
That has led to heated confrontations between fishermen who use the dock for work and people who see it as a sort of pedestrian access to a sea lion observation deck.
But Mathews understands where Pickens and sea lion dock supporters are coming from.
"I love sea lions," said Mathews, who rents lodging space above the charter office. "I have repeat lodgers that call and ask if the sea lions are back. You get some folks, they draw cool pictures of the sea lions, and talk about how they enjoy seeing them."
Even if the other issues can be resolved, there's still the biggest hurdle: money.
"We are so cash-strapped," said Port of Newport Commission Chairwoman JoAnn Barton. "There are docks that Newport's commercial fleet use that we have not had the funding to maintain the way we should be. When we prioritize what needs our attention, our resources, there is some competition there for scant resources. We are weighing what benefits the most users."
Like Mathews, Barton says she's understands the desire to keep the docks.
"Frankly, when I have company from other parts of the country, we almost always go for a stroll on the Bayfront. I go and watch the sea lions just like the visitors do. I totally get it. We are trying to work toward a solution that benefits all the stakeholders."
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.