Along North America’s West Coast, human beings are wrestling with the triumphant return of the slippery California sea lion.
The thick-bodied creatures in La Jolla, California, muscle their way into lifeguard chairs, block access to public steps, and laze about on dry rocks, where the sun bakes their feces into a stench that clears out nearby restaurants.
Up north in Oregon, these sleek swimmers so completely take over docks and marinas that port officials repel them with paint guns, electric mats, and the same Gumby-like wiggling inflatable air dancers that usually advertise clearance sales at car lots. Still, the animals keep coming.
And 145 miles (235 kilometers) up the mighty Columbia River, sea lions now feast on so many endangered fish that the federal government last week renewed authority for states to remove or euthanize the most gluttonous of the predators.
Forty-four years after passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the population of smart, muscle-bound sea lions has climbed to almost 300,000. That’s a far cry from the 1930s and 1940s, when these animals dipped to less than 20,000 and may have numbered as few as 10,000. For a fish-eating critter once slaughtered for dog food, its blubber sold for oil and its whiskers used as tobacco pipe cleaners, that is a stunning comeback.
“It’s one of the greatest success stories we can talk about in terms of marine mammals,” says Garth Griffin, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Oregon. “The MMPA flat out did its job.”
But how well are we learning to live with that success?
During the last few years, thousands of baby sea lions were stranded in southern California as ocean changes redistributed their mothers’ prey. The images of these starving young mammals may have overshadowed another phenomenon: Even as juveniles were dying, adult males were congregating in record numbers in a few unfortunate places, destroying docks, sinking boats, and munching scarce stocks of salmon.
One Oregon port last year even deployed a boat painted like a sea lion-eating orca. It was supposed to emit whale noises in an attempt to scare the whiskered critters off. It capsized.
These beautiful barking animals keep finding new ways to bamboozle us.
“Overall, California sea lions are doing quite well, and that’s a good thing,” says Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “However, it hasn’t come without consequences. Once these animals settle in a place, they can be very hard to deter.” (See how sea lions and other animals may hold cures for cancer.)
A Marine Mammal Fracas
Few people are coming to understand that better than Steve Haskins. While serving as president of the La Jolla Town Council, a community within the city of San Diego, the local real estate attorney landed in the middle of a small marine mammal fracas.
For more than a decade, some in his community had been embroiled in a surprisingly bitter spat over a group of harbor seals that commandeered a tranquil beach where residents taught their kids to swim. Those seeking protection for this fresh habitat and those itching for continued beach access faced off in lawsuits and public screaming matches. There were death threats, arrests, even a fist fight with a stun gun.
In the midst of this melee, a handful of sea lions arrived and began hauling out on rocky bluffs above popular La Jolla Cove, less than a quarter mile from outdoor restaurants and fancy hotels. The fetid mess left behind, along with the waste from cormorants and other seabirds, sometimes proved overwhelming in a community where tourists pay to eat outside.
The city sprayed a special microbial foam to counteract the stink. That eliminated the wafting odor of bird poop, but did little to knock down the sea lion’s musky funk.
“We’re pretty temperate, so the sea lion droppings would stay there and the sun would hit and it would get very, very smelly,” Haskins says. “It would go up into the restaurant district and drive people crazy.”
The same attorneys who sued to protect the seals went to court to try and force the city of San Diego to clean the waste. They argued the smell of sea lion-digested anchovies was costing businesses too much money.
“The professional boxer Floyd Mayweather, for example, recently booked two villas and six rooms for his entourage at the historic waterfront hotel La Valencia, but checked out 15 minutes after arriving because of the noxious odors emanating from La Jolla Cove,” the suit claimed.
A judge dismissed the case. A rise in bacteria in the water this year even spiked a popular open-ocean swimming race.
So Haskins and others kicked around solutions, ranging from spraying animals with hoses to mounting a set of rollers on the rocks that would make it hard for sea lions to haul out in the first place. But then this year, the animals shifted gears; they began congregating on a popular protected beach.
“The only way in or out is to swim, or there are two sets of stairs going down to the beach,” Haskins says. “What the sea lions would do is get on the stairway and sit there. They’d block it. People on the beach couldn’t get out. Then they’d climb into the lifeguard stations. Lifeguards were dealing with sea lions and not watching for people drowning.”
Haskins isn’t sure what comes next.
“No one wants to do anything that might harm marine life,” he says. “It may be one of those things for which there is no good answer.”