ASTORIA — For Stu Ford of Kansas, the sea lions here are magnificent — worth checking out even in Thursday morning's driving rain storm.

"I absolutely love them," Ford said from the East Mooring Basin marina as his son and a young friend exclaimed about the animals' size and distinctive bark.

Locals who fish or work near the docks, though, call them a menace.

"They take your fish right off your hook," said Len Self who runs a professional guide service out of Astoria and has had numerous run-ins with sea lions.

That frustration — and a dramatic increase in fatal sea lion shootings in recent months — has lead to a federal investigation officials announced this week.

Over the past two months about 20 sea lions have been killed, primarily with guns, according to the Northern Oregon-Southern Washington Marine Mammal Stranding Network. That's four times the normal number of expected deaths. Most were found at the mouth of the Columbia River or within a few miles to the north or south.

The increase is alarming enough to launch an investigation and a hotline about the shootings, said Sean Stanely, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law enforcement division.

"We have unusually high numbers of sea lions that have been shot to death," said Stanley, who also is working with Washington and Oregon state officials. "And this particular spate of deaths is under investigation by us as a group."

In addition to the more common California sea lion, some of the carcasses have belonged to Stellar sea lions, which carry an extra protection as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. Shooters of California sea lions -- protected by the Marine Mammals Act -- face up to a year in prison and $20,000 fine. Penalties are even stiffer for killing a Stellar sea lion, Stanely said.

Some speculate that frustrated fishermen may taking matters into their own hands after sea lions interfere with their catch or threaten their boats.

Self said he's never shot at a sea lion, but he certainly understands the impulse.

"Kudos," he said when told of the shootings. "It's too bad more of them aren't shot."

"They break things all the time and two of them have tried to bite me, they came right up behind me," said marina worker Jose Delgado. He added he also spends a fair amount of time cleaning their waste off the docks.

"I don't want them shot, but they're trouble," he said.

Some also speculate that the federal program authorizing the killing of sea lions threatening salmon runs at Oregon's Bonneville Dam may lead others to think it's okay to kill the large mammals. The practice has been in the news in recent years due to lawsuits aimed at stopping the killings.

"Maybe people have lost sight of the fact that these are still federally protected animals," said Jim Rice of Oregon State University and the Oregon Coast coordinator for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Some sea lions are shot every year, but Rice said he's particularly worried about the increase.

"It's alarming," he said. "It seems people are stepping up their antagonism toward the animal."

"They're dangerous," said a sturgeon fisher from Waldport who identified himself only by the name "Curly." "People are just fed up with them and probably sick of the government not doing anything," he said.

Stanely said NOAA investigators are not making any assumptions this early in the probe.

"We want to cast the net as wide as possible," he said. "Whether it's one person or a group of people, we don't want to limit who we look at or where it might have taken place."

Stanely said the agency's immediate need is to gather more information about the deaths, including any possible witnesses. Anyone with information is asked to call the investigation hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

Ford and other tourists checking out the sea lions Thursday said they hope the shooters are caught soon.

"It's just tragic," Ford said. "Totally irresponsible."

Kay Soderberg, from Wyoming, couldn't fathom why anyone would harm the sea lions.

"That's just terrible," she said while snapping photos of the animals. "I just love the wildlife out here."

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