Posts Tagged Sea Lions

Nov 11 2018

Major Disease Outbreak Strikes California Sea Lions

preamble —

This article stated:  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced in January that California sea lions had reached carrying capacity—the number of individuals their environment can sustainably support—in 2008.

The expected symptoms of a population of mammals at carrying capacity include reduced reproductive output, decreased growth and survival of young animals, delayed sexual maturity, increases in disease or parasites and decreased size and survival of adults.   There have beenrecent increases in California sea lion pup mortality and reduced pup growth rates, as well as increased incidence of leptospirosis observed in central California and Oregon, leading to the suggestion that the population is approaching carrying capacity (McClatchieet al. 2016).

Leptospirosis afflicts sea lions on a semi-regular cycle, but warming waters and migrating fish could make the marine mammals more susceptible

Princepajaro, a male California sea lion, swims in a pool during treatment for leptospirosis at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA. When a leptospirosis outbreak occurs, the Center’s scientists study the disease to learn more about what causes an outbreak and how we can improve treatment for infected animals. (Bill Hunnewell / The Marine Mammal Center)

Shawn Johnson knew it was coming.

“Last fall, we saw a few cases,” he said. “And that was a warning signal, so we were prepared—well, we weren’t prepared for this level of an outbreak.”

Over the past month, Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center, just north of San Francisco, and his team have been getting an average of five sick California sea lions a day. The animals have leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that affects their kidneys, causing fatigue, abdominal pain and, more often than not, death.

As of October 16, Johnson’s team had seen 220 sea lions with the disease, which made it the center’s second largest outbreak. Since then, the center reported 29 more sea lions have been rescued and 10 of those died due to leptospirosis. More than a dozen animals are still awaiting diagnosis. The number of cases has started to slow, but if historical trends hold up, Johnson expects this outbreak to eventually surpass 2004’s record of 304 cases of sea lion leptospirosis.

The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA, is responding to an outbreak of a potentially fatal bacterial infection called leptospirosis in California sea lions. The pictured sea lion, Glazer, is seen curled up with his flippers folded tightly over his abdomen prior to his rescue by trained Center responders in Monterey. The posture exhibited is known as “lepto pose,” and is often an indication the sea lion is suffering the effects of the disease. (The Marine Mammal Center)


All told, about 70 percent of the sea lions the team tried to save have died.

Leptospirosis outbreaks among sea lions occur at fairly regular intervals, but changing ocean conditions—warmer waters and relocating fish—are affecting how the disease strikes populations along the Pacific Coast. The threats aren’t new, but they’re threatening in slightly new ways. Changes in marine conditions appear to be affecting the population’s resiliency to this disease and others. While researchers scramble to save sick sea lions today, they are also studying what this year’s outbreak can tell us about how sea lions will fare down the line.

The good news is that sea lions are fairly mobile and resilient animals. And until recently, their populations were booming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced in January that California sea lions had reached carrying capacity—the number of individuals their environment can sustainably support—in 2008.

Since then, though, their numbers have fluctuated. A “blob” of unusually warm and long-lasting water moved in along the West Coast from 2013 to 2015, causing widespread algal blooms that spread a neurotoxin called domoic acid throughout the marine food chain. Sea lions with elevated levels of the toxin suffered brain damage, resulting in strokes and an impaired ability to navigate, ultimately killing most of the afflicted individuals.

The warm water also sent fish and smaller marine life out to search for cooler environments, meaning the sea lions had to travel farther to find food. The combination of more distant hunting and impaired navigation led to record numbers of stranded pups—many taken in by the Marine Mammal Center—as well as a dip in the sea lion population during those years.

California sea lion Yakshack is one of 220 patients at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA, that has been rescued so far this year impacted by a bacterial disease known as leptospirosis. The Center has been at the forefront of research on leptospirosis in marine mammals and has published a number of scientific papers on the disease dating back to 1985. (Bill Hunnewell / The Marine Mammal Center)


But the warm water conditions also led, ironically, to a decline in cases of leptospirosis during that time. Over the past decade, scientists have determined that the disease, which spreads via a parasite, is endemic to the population. Some animals carry the disease and don’t get sick, but they do excrete the parasites in their urine, which is how it spreads to other individuals. When sea lions haul out on a pier or beach, they freely roll around in each other’s pee.

When the blob of warm water appeared, sea lions had to swim farther to find food and had less time to haul out and be social, Johnson says, meaning less time sitting around in each other’s pee and parasites—and fewer cases of leptospirosis. But the lack of the disease a few years ago led to consequences today. Sea lions that get leptospirosis and survive develop antibodies that fend off the parasite in the future, says Katie Prager, a veterinarian researcher at UCLA’s Lloyd-Smith Laboratory who collaborates with the Marine Mammal Center. These antibodies, however, cannot be inherited by offspring.

“It’s not something that can be passed on,” Prager says. “Antibodies are something that the pup has to develop on its own.”

The warm waters meant fewer sick sea lions, but it left the population very vulnerable. Now the disease is back with a vengeance.

“A lot of the animals are now naive to that bacteria and their immune systems haven’t been exposed to that,” says Alissa Deming, a veterinarian researcher at Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama who previously studied sea lion diseases at the Marine Mammal Research Center. “There is a group of animals that haven’t seen this before.”

The risk, according to the researchers, is that continued domoic acid outbreaks could result in a vicious cycle—fewer cases of leptospirosis produce unexposed populations, and then major outbreaks flare up like we are seeing this year.

“This is a great example of how environmental change has so much impact on a wild species—all the way from where they eat, where they migrate and how their diseases change over time, just based on a few degrees’ increase,” Johnson says.

California sea lion Herbie lays on his pen floor during treatment for leptospirosis at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA. Veterinarians can usually identify leptospirosis in a patient even before laboratory tests confirm a diagnosis because of the infection’s distinctive symptoms in California sea lions, which include drinking water and folding the flippers over the abdomen. (Bill Hunnewell / The Marine Mammal Center)


The first documented case of a marine mammal suffering from the domoic acid toxin was in 1998, and the events are now increasing in frequency—so much so that the spread of domoic acid has become a yearly sign of the changing seasons around San Francisco Bay. “The days are getting shorter, pumpkin spice lattes are here and once again, it’s time for that other Bay Area rite of fall: worrying about the levels of toxins in local Dungeness crabs,” begins a recent San Francisco Chronicle article on the influence of the toxin on the start of crabbing season.

Sea lions don’t wait for permission from the Department of Public Health before they start eating crabs, though.

To exacerbate the issue even more, an El Nino event is predicted over the coming months, meaning warmer ocean waters off the West Coast and possibly more algal blooms and toxins. Already, Southern California waters—where researchers have found some of the highest concentrations of diatoms that produce domoic acid—have had record high temperatures this year.

NOAA has even deemed the recent warm-water years a “climate change stress test” for West Coast oceans. The agency said the conditions “may offer previews of anthropogenic climate change impacts projected for the latter part of the 21st century.”

If this has been a test, sea lions might not have passed, says Robert DeLong, a scientist with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. DeLong has been studying California sea lions for decades at their breeding grounds, Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. He says the species should be pretty resilient in the face of climate change, but the rate of warming waters is proving a major challenge.

Volunteers from The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA, release California sea lions Bogo (left), Brielle (center), and Biggie (right) back to the wild near Bodega Bay. All three sea lions were treated for leptospirosis at the Center’s Sausalito hospital. Many different animal species, including humans and dogs, can become infected with Leptospira through contact with contaminated urine, water or soil. The Center has a number of safety protocols in place to prevent transmission to veterinarians and volunteers working with sea lion patients. (Bill Hunnewell / The Marine Mammal Center)


The center of the West Coast sea lion population is around Baja California, so the species has adapted to warmer water than is currently being seen farther north up the coast. “They have that capability to live in warmer water,” DeLong says. And unlike, say, coral reefs, sea lions are very mobile, able to swim long distances to find suitable habitats.

But while males can chase food far up north, during the breeding season females are tied to a small radius around the rookery. If there is less food available there because fish have moved to cooler waters, it could present a major problem for sea lion mothers and their pups.

“So if this is what climate change looks like, and this period is an adequate proxy, if that’s really the case, then sea lions may not do as well as we would think,” DeLong says.

There are still signs of hope. Sea lions are increasingly moving north to new breeding grounds off the San Francisco Bay, for instance. The limiting factor is time.

“If the environmental changes are slow enough to adapt, they’ll be able to move and will probably move farther up the coast,” Johnson said. “If changes are slow enough, I could see them being able to adapt.”

Original post:


Nov 25 2017

Biggest Chinook Salmon Haul Going to Sea Lions, Seals & Killer Whales

A young resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, Washington, in September 2017. Oregon State University, Flickr Creative Commons


It’s been a long haul, but West Coast seal and sea lion populations have recovered over the past 40 years. All those extra predators may be eating more chinook salmon than people are catching, according to a new study.

Increasing numbers of marine predators could be bad news for chinook salmon — and for critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers used models to estimate how many salmon marine mammals are eating.

“The reality is, if (marine mammal) population numbers are increasing, undoubtedly their consumption and predation is also increasing,” said Brandon Chasco, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. candidate at Oregon State University.

Turns out, sea lions, harbor seals, and growing populations of killer whales in Alaska and Canada are consuming almost 150 percent more chinook salmon than they did 40 years ago. That’s compared to a 41 percent decrease in the amount of chinook salmon fisheries are harvesting.

“This sort of thing has been documented around the world — recovery of seals and sea lion predation on fish that lots of people care about and harvest,” said Isaac Kaplan, with NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center and study co-author. “But really putting the diet information together and doing the sort of careful accounting … it really emphasizes the strength of that impact on the chinook salmon population.”

As the juvenile salmon swim out to sea, they get eaten by seals and sea lions. Then some salmon swim clear up the coast to Alaska, where booming populations of killer whales take a bite out of the chinook numbers.

As the salmon then migrate back to spawn in Northwest streams, there are fewer fish for the southern resident killer whales in Washington’s marine waters.

The researchers said all that means chinook salmon could be doing better than previously thought — they’re just getting gobbled up before returning home and getting counted.

“There is a conflict. There is a trade-off here,” Kaplan said. “To some extent, it means that recovery of chinook salmon populations has been more successful than we realized — it’s just that some of that success is going towards feeding marine mammals.”

The sea lions and seals are protected by the U.S. Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972. At the same time, the Endangered Species Act protects chinook salmon.

Columbia River tribes of Native Americans have recently fought to protect salmon runs from the pinnipeds, asking for authorization to kill more of the sea lions that feast on the fish.

The study, funded by the Pacific Salmon Commission, found that sea lions and seals are eating more individual fish, while killer whales are eating more biomass, or weight, of fish. It’s unclear, right now, which number has a bigger impact on salmon numbers, Chasco said.

The researchers said salmon recovery efforts must take into account all the different challenges salmon face, including these increasing marine mammal predators studied.

Right now many salmon survival models focus more on ocean conditions and commercial and recreational fisheries. Taking more of an ecosystem approach to managing salmon might be a better way to go, the researchers said.

“There’s more than just fishing to the story (of salmon recovery). There’s also predation,” Kaplan said. “This study helps us understand that there are multiple pressures acting on salmon.”

But there’s still much more to study, Chasco said.

For example, he said, “Is this an additive effect, or is it these predators simply taking fish out of the mouths of other predators?”

Originally published:

Jul 14 2016

Stinky Sea Lions Inspire Wacky Deterrents—Like Fake Orcas

sea_lionSea lions have angered human neighbors in La Jolla, California, with their smells and sounds, kicking off a public battle.

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.)

Sea Lions of San Fran Locals and tourists gather to see Pier 39’s rowdy sea lions in the heart of San Francisco.

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.”

Sea Lion Lemonade

Some communities have simply embraced their uninvited guests.

“When you think about it, it’s absolutely spectacular that people can observe these big predatory animals that closely, and have the opportunity to see them while eating lunch,” says Bob DeLong, with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, who has worked with sea lions since 1969.

European hunters centuries ago began driving sea lion numbers down, harvesting them for hides and blubber, and because they were rivals for fish. Today, these sea lions breed on offshore islands in southern California, but some also mate in the Farallones, off San Francisco, and on islands in Mexico. While females may nurse their young for much of the year, adult males tend to roam.

“It’s that sexual separation that really sets things up for a lot of the conflicts that we see,” DeLong says. “It’s not the females; they’re too busy making milk to feed junior to come up north and eat salmon or haul out on people’s docks.”

But males, after four or five years, travel far and wide, hightailing it to wherever they find food, sometimes as far north as Alaska. That appetite and wanderlust can bring a spot of trouble.

In 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, a few sea lions chasing herring found their way to a new dock at San Francisco’s Pier 39. Within a year, the number of sea lions topped several hundred, rendering the pier almost useless as a marina. Frustrated, boat users abandoned the yacht mooring spot to the lounging pinnipeds. Now Pier 39 sometimes attracts 1,700 or more sea lions and is “one of the most visited attractions following Disneyland,” DeLong says.

“LaJolla just hasn’t gotten used to what they have,” he says. “There’s lemonade to be made there.”

That lemonade doesn’t always come cheap. When sea lions amassed at Moss Landing Marina in California’s Monterey Bay, “they sunk boats, they broke rails, smashed in doors; there was feces everywhere,” says NOAA’s Yates. After years of effort and thousands of dollars in damage, the harbormaster began installing special equipment to protect the structures. “It’s expensive and hard, and it’s a long painful process with angst on all sides.”

And not all conflicts are with people.

Mysterious Hershel and Hondo Return

In the early 2000s, during one of the Columbia River’s best salmon runs in decades, the Army Corps of Engineers noticed a few sea lions making their way to Bonneville Dam, where they ate salmon, including chinook and steelhead, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“There’s no archaeological evidence that sea lions historically occurred in the Columbia,” says Robin Brown, with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At first it was an amusing head-slapper. The mammals usually appeared at the Columbia’s mouth to snatch smelt. But with smelt numbers down and salmon up, the sea lions traveled upriver to the dam. Soon they were arriving by the hundreds, helping drive down fish populations. “The impact varies year to year, but it’s potentially significant,” Yates says.

Now, each spring, marksmen patrol the river, shooting sea lions with bean bags, rubber bullets, noisemakers, and firecrackers, trying to prevent one protected species from making a smorgasbord of the other. In extreme cases, the animals can be removed or killed.

Some animal-rights groups oppose this treatment, and many environmentalists suggest the focus on sea lions detracts from larger threats to the Columbia, namely habitat destruction upstream and dams that warm the water and complicate fish passage. But river and wildlife managers point to sea lions’ history of doing damage when not kept in check.

In the 1970s, a pair of the pinnipeds, Herschel and Hondo, began gorging on endangered steelhead at a set of locks on Washington’s Puget Sound. Within a decade, the problem was so severe that federal managers turned to crossbows and slingshots and specially prepared fish pumped full of nausea-inducing drugs in an attempt to turn the mammals off steelhead for good.

When that didn’t work, they drove the sea lions away—literally—by capturing and trucking them out to the coast. The animals returned two weeks later. Later, the sea lions were dumped thousands of miles south in California’s Channel Islands, but still found their way back. By the time the problem was controlled in the early 1990s, fewer than 100 of the winter steelhead run remained. Today those fish are all gone.

Scientists suspect the strandings of young sea lions in recent years ultimately will drive that marine mammal population down a bit in coming years. In addition, the return of white sharks and shortfin makos that prey on sea lions may also bring down sea lion populations. But scientists don’t believe that will ultimately help the endangered fish.

And recent winters have given researchers pause.

Unusually large populations of smelt have drawn record numbers of sea lions to an area near the mouth of the river. While hundreds swarmed the docks near the estuary in 2012, that number hit nearly 4,000 by 2016. But when the years of those bountiful smaller fish peter out, some experts fear they know what comes next.

“The sea lions will show up, expecting their smelt, but then see those large salmon swimming by and simply follow them up the river,” Griffin says. “I believe that this problem will either stay the same or get worse.”

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Jul 7 2016

NOAA authorizes Oregon to continue killing sea lions to save endangered fish

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has authorized three northwestern states to continue killing sea lions that prey on endangered fish species as they try to climb the fish ladder at the Bonneville Dam, officials said Wednesday.

California sea lions often congregate at the mouth of the the Columbia River and in the waters just below the dam, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement, and the hungry marine mammals have put a big dent in the numbers of salmon and steelhead looking to make their yearly migration upstream.

“Last year sea lions were estimated to have consumed nearly 10,000 adult spring Chinook salmon, amounting to more than 3 percent of returning adult fish,” the administration said in a statement. “The impact on individual populations within the run may be much higher. An estimated 25 to 35 percent of the fish consumed are listed under the Endangered Species Act.”


Sea lions may be killing more salmon than estimated, NOAA study says

The authorization for Oregon, Washington and Idaho to trap and euthanize the sea lions will run for five years, the administration said in a press release, and is just one tactic the government is trying to help bolster the numbers of flagging fish species.

Oregon officials have tried exclusion gates, pyrotechnics and shooting the animals with rubber buckshot to dissuade the animals from congregating to feed at the dam, but all of those efforts only work temporarily, Oregon officials said.

Problematic sea lions that have been observed feeding near the dam’s fish ladders are individually identified and trapped. Though officials would prefer to relocate the animals to zoos or aquariums, that isn’t always possible and the animals sometimes have to be killed as a last resort.

Since the effort began in 2008, some 166 animals have been removed, 59 of them this year alone. Of 166 sea lions removed, 15 went into captivity, seven died of accidental deaths and 144 were euthanized, a spokesman for NOAA said.

Since the states began the program in 2008, officials estimate 15,000 to 20,000 salmon and steelhead have been saved from predation.

There are about 300,000 California sea lions off the west coast and the authorization only allows for 92 animals to be removed per year. The authorization also precludes removing any Steller sea lions, which are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

—   Kale Williams

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Jun 17 2016

La Jolla Sea Lion Situation Now A ‘Crisis’

Visitors in La Jolla Cove stand on the bluffs along the ocean, Nov. 19, 2015.

Photo by Katie Schoolov – Visitors in La Jolla Cove stand on the bluffs along the ocean, Nov. 19, 2015.


The ongoing poop problem in La Jolla appears to be getting worse.

How much worse?

Residents are now calling it a crisis.

“It’s not just the smell of the sea lions on the rocky bluffs,” said Steve Haskins, the former president of the La Jolla Town Council. “Now it’s actually the sea lions taking over the stairways, sometimes they don’t let people go to the beach or leave the beach because you have very large male sea lions on the stairways, which can be very aggressive.”

Pollution from sea lion and bird droppings in the ocean also led to the cancellation of the annual La Jolla Rough Water Swim race this year, said Haskins.

La Jolla Cove was under a health advisory warning for about two weeks in May due to high levels of pollution. Historically, advisories average two days in the cove, according to county staff.

Over the years, a number of creative ideas to address the stench have been proposed. In 2013 the city began the application of a bioactive product on the bluffs. Early this year, a group of La Jolla residents and business owners suggested setting up rotating plastic cylinders that will roll the marine mammals off the rocks as they try to jump out of the water.

Haskins said no action on that plan was taken.

Now he is suggesting the city spray water on the sea lions, which the animals don’t like, to remove them off the beach. Haskins said this solution would require no approval from authorities, and the city could do it immediately.

The city commissioned a report on the sea lions that was supposed to come out in May, according to Haskins, but it hasn’t yet been published.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Mar 2 2016

Sea Lion Die-Off Tied to ‘Junk Food’ Fish

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA barking California sea lion pup shows signs of undernourishment.

Record numbers of California sea lion pups have been starving and stranding on beaches by the thousands in recent years, and now new research finds that a decline in their mothers’ food quality is behind the disturbing trend.

High calorie sardines and anchovies are now harder for sea lion moms to find, causing them to eat more rockfish and market squid that can be great for people on diets, but aren’t as hearty a meal for hungry sea lions. The findings are published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

“For human consumption, highly oily fish may actually be less desirable to consumers,” lead author Sam McClatchie told Discovery News. “In contrast, for predators with high energy demands, such as nursing female sea lions, eating fish with higher energy density due to higher content of calories and fats provides a more effective way to meet their nutritional demands.”

Human demand for anchovies, in particular, has been on the rise due to the savory fish’s popularity in Caesar salad dressing and in “junk foods” like pizza. The real junk food for breeding female sea lions, minus the high calories, turns out to be the other types of fish that are now more prevalent in their feeding areas off central California.

McClatchie, an oceanographer at NOAA Fisheries Service’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and his team studied both the sea lion pup strandings and population trends for fish that adult sea lions eat. Data for the latter came from surveys that are conducted each summer off the coast of California.

A perfect storm now appears to be in place that is hurting the sea lions. Due to conservation efforts, numbers of these marine mammals increased from about 50,000 40 years ago to around 340,000 now. No one knows what the historic populations were like, given that Native Americans also frequently hunted sea lions and there are no detailed sea lion population estimates prior to the 1970s.

At a time when the sea lion population appears to be approaching what the researchers call its current “carrying capacity” for the region, sardine and anchovy numbers plummeted while market squid and rockfish abundance increased.

Several researchers, such as marine biologist Malin Pinsky of Rutgers, have attributed this and prior dramatic fish population plunges to overfishing by humans. He and his team note that such collapses started to occur more frequently in sardines and anchovies after the advent of efficient fishing vessels and techniques following World War II. Anchovies and sardines are important to the pet food and fish oil industries, in addition to their other mentioned common uses.

“Overfishing is a problem throughout the world and across all species, including slow-growing fish like sharks, many of which are in serious trouble,” said Pinsky. “But it turns out that fishery collapses are three times more likely in the opposite kinds of species — those that grow quickly.”

McClatchie and his team, however, believe that the problem is “environmental,” and not because of overfishing.

McClatchie and his team, however, believe that the problem is “environmental,” and not because of overfishing. This distinction is important, as federal regulators are planning to do an official stock assessment of anchovies in the fall and will consider updating the 25,000-ton rule that now limits catches.

“Sardine and anchovy populations both show large inter-annual variability that is environmentally driven and prior to any fishing,” McClatchie said.

Joshua Lindsay of the National Marine Fisheries Service told Discovery News that populations of anchovies, sardines and other small fish “are linked to prevailing environmental conditions. NMFS has been working to better understand these environmental processes driving fish populations as well as the diet linkages between forage fish species and higher order predators to enhance the ecosystem science used in our fisheries management.”

Marc Mangel, a professor at both the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Bergen, says the study “will help refocus the discussion about the causes of sea lion declines. More importantly, in my opinion, it is a terrific example of how we can use marine mammals and birds as sentinels or samplers of the environment.”

In the meantime, the short-term outlook for sea lions is worrisome, particularly for rescue centers that have been stretched to their limits. McClatchie and his colleagues say that they “expect repeated years with malnourished and starving sea lion pups,” but can’t predict when that will end.

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Nov 11 2015

Sea Lion Surge Prompts High Tech Tracking, Hazing & Killings



Producer: Vince Patton   Videographers: Nick Fisher, Todd Sonflieth, Michael Bendixen   Editor: Greg Davis   Associate Producer: Cassandra Profita   Additional Photos & Video: Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Cassandra Profita


On the last day of the spring salmon season on the Columbia River, sport anglers spotted competition for the fish they want to catch.

Half a dozen sea lions poked up their heads just beyond the reach of fishing lines.

Fisherman David Hylton from Redmond said, “I think we need to get them out of this system because this is not their natural habitat. They don’t live here.”

Historically, sea lions did not come up the Columbia. Lewis & Clark spotted harbor seals. Archaeologists confirm finding remains of seals but not sea lions as high up the river as Celilo Falls.

However, a growing number of sea lions have made the Columbia a frequent stopping point since the 1980s.

A record number of sea lions estimated at more than 2500 smothered the docks in Astoria in the spring of 2015. A record number of sea lions estimated at more than 2500 smothered the docks in Astoria in the spring of 2015. Nick Fisher/Oregon Public Broadcasting

In 2015, sea lions set records. More than 2500 covered the docks in Astoria and surveys estimated nearly 5,000 in the lower Columbia River.

West coast populations have risen from about 180,000 in the late 1990s to nearly 300,000 in 2015.

Biologists, anglers and tribes all believe the sea lions are killing too many endangered salmon.

Government observers spend months watching the sea lions.

The official estimates predict sea lions eat from 3,00 to 5,000 salmon, though in 2015 that jumped to more than 8,000.

Doug Hatch, biologist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission concedes they really don’t know how many salmon are eaten by sea lions.

“We know there’s a lot of sea lions in the river,” says Hatch, “but we don’t know what their predation rate is on salmon.”

Tribal biologists are experimenting with a high tech means to find out.

They have captured a handful of sea lions, glued a tracking device to their head and released them back to the river.

Biologists glued an accelerometer tag to the head of a sea lion in an attempt to track its body motions.   Biologists glued an accelerometer tag to the head of a sea lion in an attempt to track its body motions. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

Hatch compares the tag to a fitness tracker people wear on their wrists. The sea lion tags measure the unique motions of a sea lion’s head, particularly when they eat.

Sea lions often thrash about, throwing their food.

It’s not play. They’re breaking the salmon up into pieces easier for them to eat.

A sea lion thrashes its head, tossing the salmon it has caught to break it up smaller to eat. A sea lion thrashes its head, tossing the salmon it has caught to break it up smaller to eat. Nick Fisher/Oregon Public Broadcasting

“When they do that it’s a very unique, distinctive movement of shaking,” says Hatch. “We think we’ll be able to capture that on the accelerometer tag.”

Perhaps those tracking tags will show how many fish each sea lion eats when observers are not around to watch.

Learning how many salmon sea lions eat is more than an academic question. It directly affects how many more sea lions may be put to death in future years.

“It’s been quite controversial,” says Robin Brown, the marine mammal program leader for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Brown says if the Army Corps of Engineers said it planned to modify Bonneville Dam in a way that would kill an additional 5,000 salmon each year, “It would never be permitted. The same is true from our perspective for the California sea lion predation on threatened and endangered salmon.”

Biologists received federal permission to take more extreme measures.

CRITFC helps with the first stage. They haze the animals by firing non-lethal noise-making shells from shotguns at sea lions near Bonneville Dam. The hazing lasts several months a year.

A Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission worker hazes sea lions with noise makers from a shotgun. A Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission worker hazes sea lions with noise makers from a shotgun. Nick Fisher/Oregon Public Broadcasting

ODFW has regularly branded thousands of sea lions for the last several decades. The brands are large enough to be read by observers.

If an individual sea lion has been exposed to non-lethal hazing and has been identified repeatedly eating salmon near the dam, that sea lion can be killed.

That infuriates Ninette Jones, an activist with the Sea Lion Defense Brigade.

Day after day, she arrives before dawn to watch and shoot video of the government’s sea lion trapping operation from the opposite side of the river.

Government biologists take select sea lions from traps to be euthanized at Bonneville Dam. Government biologists take select sea lions from traps to be euthanized at Bonneville Dam. Todd Sonflieth/Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Jones believes sea lions are scapegoats when the impact of dams kills far more fish.

“We still had a million Chinook cross this dam. With our sea lions, with all the people, I think that’s pretty amazing,” says Jones. “For land mammals (humans) to allocate all the aquatic animals food source for themselves, I find that rather greedy.”

In eight years, the government has killed 85 sea lions and transferred another 15 to zoos.

Hatch, the CRITFC biologist, says he hopes their tracking tags will improve data showing whether sea lions are responsible for a substantial impact on salmon runs.

“It’s circumstantial,” says Hatch. “You have a large population of sea lions and you have this loss of fish.  But we need a predation rate.  We need a way to link those together before we could say, without a doubt that it’s a sea lion problem.”

Recent salmon runs in the millions have set records.

But tribal and government biologists believe allowing several thousand fish each year to disappear to predators still poses too great a risk to the salmon.

“None of us like the idea of having to kill animals, remove predators,” says Brown.

ODFW says it has no plans to remove large numbers of sea lions; it will target only those individuals identified as repeatedly eating salmon near the dam.

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Jun 9 2015

Sea lions not leaving Port of Astoria anytime soon

by Stephanie Yao Long

-ba6e641d3cd95469Click here for:  Photos | Video


The saga continues for Port of Astoria officials in what to do with the dozens of sea lions that are lounging around on their docks.

In case you missed it last week, a motorized fiberglass orca was brought down from Bellingham, Washington in an attempt to scare away the barking beasts.

First, mechanical problems halted its use, then it was tipped over in the wake of a passing ship and started taking on water.

The fake orca is gone now, but the sightseeing humans are still flocking to the area to watch the sea lions basking in the sun.

The tolerance for the invaders varies. Some neighbors don’t mind the animals’ noisy communication. Fishermen see the sea lions stealing up to 75% of their catch according to an earlier account.

The Associated Press says:

“Sea lion numbers along the West Coast have grown sharply since they were protected under a 1972 federal law. The sea lions that have been taking over docks at the Port of Astoria are attracted by runs of a fish known as smelt, federal biologists say.”

Officials have tried just about everything to keep the sea lions away — including beach balls, colorful tape, chicken wire and electrified mats.

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Jun 9 2015

Fake Orca Flops Instead Of Striking Fear In Astoria’s Sea Lions

412226396Boats guide a fiberglass orca into the Port of Astoria’s East Mooring Basin.

The Port of Astoria attempted to scare hundreds of sea lions off its docks Thursday using a motorized orca made of fiberglass. But after a series of mishaps, the experiment went belly up.

Port leaders had high hopes for the fake orca as it pulled into town on a trailer from Bellingham, Washington. A fake baby orca tagged along, lashed onto the roof of an SUV.

It was designed to look like a killer whale but run like a boat, with a motor and a hole on top for a pilot to look out and steer. Everyone was hoping the sea lions would see it as a predator and swim away from the port docks, where they’ve caused major headaches.

But that’s not how things went. John Andersen of Bend watched as the whale eventually had to be towed back to the docks after multiple failures.

“I have seen its motor die. I’ve seen the tow rope snap. I’ve seen the pilot bail out,” he said. “I have seen what looks to me so far to be a major fiasco.”

The effort drew little if any reaction from the barking sea lions, but Port of Astoria Executive Director Jim Knight said he doesn’t see it as a total failure.

“Actually I feel really good because our expectations were pretty low,” he said. “We had no idea whether it would work. What we were really successful at was bringing attention to the problems we have here in Astoria with our friendly, noisy critters that have come to visit us. So, in that sense I’m really glad to have this opportunity and have the rest of the world know what we’re faced with.”

A record of more than 2,000 sea lions piled into the port’s East Mooring Basin this spring. The 800-pound animals have damaged the docks’ infrastructure and even sunk boats that tried to moor there.

The port has tried flagging, electrified pads and even beach balls to scare them off, but to no avail. Knight said he’d like to see what a real orca could do – or at least one that worked better then the one they launched on Thursday. But he suspects whatever effect an orca would have would be temporary.

“They’d probably come back anyway,” he said. “So, we’ve got to find much, much better measures than bringing in imitation orcas. I’m back to trying to find another way to keep them off the docks.”

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May 27 2015

Beach balls the latest weapon against sea lions in Astoria

Add beach balls to the list of sea lion deterrants used by the Port of Astoria.

Beach balls are fun for seals, but apparently scary for sea lions.

Visitors lined up Sunday along the Port of Astoria’s East End Mooring Basin causeway to watch the sea lions on the docks below. Among them moved Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, clutching a string of twine attached to a small, multicolored beach ball, the latest and possibly weirdest weapon used to evict the stubborn pinnipeds.

Knight scaled the barriers set up on P Dock, followed by Robert Evert, his permit and project manager, and Bill MacDonald, a Cannery Lofts resident who had suggested the beach balls.

“The idea is to just tie up some of these cheap things along the docks,” MacDonald explained, comparing the practice to putting milk jugs on fences to keep deer out.

Unlike seals, who like to play with beach balls, MacDonald said he discovered that sea lions are frightened of the inflatable toys.

Sea lions scattered Sunday at the sight of the beach balls, whether tossed off the causeway or carried out onto the docks by MacDonald and Port staff.

“They’re only a buck apiece,” Knight said. “So for $20, I can get a couple docks covered.”

The Port has tried several methods to evict the sea lions, from the brightly colored surveying tape and pennants lining a couple of the docks near the basin’s breakwater to lightly electrified mats being designed by Smith-Root Fisheries Technology and the chicken wire fencing erected at the foot of P Dock.

By Tuesday evening, beach balls bobbed in the moorages up and down the finger piers of P Dock, almost entirely emptied of sea lions except for one or two stragglers.


Willy coming after Goonies


If beach balls are not a quirky enough sea lion deterrent, a fake, fiberglass orca will soon join the party at the basin.

Knight said the 36-foot fiberglass whale, used as an advertisement and parade gimmick by Island Mariner, which runs whale-watching trips out of Bellingham, Wash., will arrive around June 12, the weekend after the “The Goonies” 30th anniversary extravaganza.

In the meantime, Island Mariner owner Terry Buzzard is making the whale remote-controlled.

“It accidentally was used in Bellingham,” Buzzard said of the whale’s effectiveness. “We were playing with it, and it seemed to scare the sea lions away. They left, but we don’t have any reason why. That’s why I told Jim, ‘I’m not making any promises.’”


Mixed welcome


Sea lions at the basin continue drawing visitors, despite creative attempts by the Port to remove them from the docks and possible retaliation by people not so enamored with the fish-eating pinnipeds. The sea lion population has boomed since their protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act started in 1972.

Reports have been coming in from people finding dead sea lions on the beach and along the Astoria waterfront, some with possible bullet wounds. The Sea Lion Defense Brigade, which for years has monitored sea lions from Astoria to Bonneville Dam, reported finding 11 shell casings from a .44-caliber weapon at the basin last week, along with a sea lion with a serious eye wound.

The finding comes more than a month after the group reported finding 19 casings from a .306-caliber weapon at the basin. After the discovery, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement in Portland launched an investigation.

The discoveries are somewhat of a mystery. Sean Stanley, a federal officer with NOAA who confirmed in April his office had opened an investigation, would neither confirm nor deny the most recent discovery of shell casings. Meanwhile, there were no reports of gunfire to the police around either time the Sea Lion Defense Brigade said it discovered shell casings.

The Port turned over security footage to investigators after the first discovery. Members of the brigade and other watchdogs have also asked for the footage, which the agency has so far declined to provide.

“They’re surveillance tapes, and I don’t want people to know what our capacity for surveillance is,” Knight said, adding the light at the basin is not good enough for useful nighttime footage. “We talked to our lawyers, and it’s excluded from public records.”

Knight said the basin is not the place for sea lions to live, with health and safety issues from the high concentration of them in close proximity to people. Evert has said the natural environment for sea lions is the rock breakwaters surrounding the basin. Letting them live on docks, he added, is akin to domesticating them.

Knight said he has talked with Veronica Montoya, a member of the brigade who said she has discovered (gun) shells and sea lions that look like they have been shot, about the Port’s need to get sea lions off the docks.

Montoya, watching Tuesday as the Port laid out the beach balls, said she understands the agency’s position. But she added the Port needs to do more to protect the animals, and people need to look beyond their hatred of sea lions to see their benefit.

“I guess if it works, it’s OK; as long as it doesn’t hurt the sea lions,” Montoya said of the beach balls. “But I think that they should leave these animals alone, because they’re such a huge draw.”

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