Posts Tagged Sea Lions

May 16 2015

La Jolla leaders discuss sea lion issue with NOAA

Lifeguards at La Jolla Cove trained in use of ‘crowding boards’ to deter pinnipeds

Sea_Lions_resting_2-19-15_t837The growing number of sea lions along the cliffs at La Jolla Cove is causing problems for businesses and beach-goers.

Last week lifeguards monitoring La Jolla Cove were given what could be the first of several tools in an arsenal to help manage the growing sea lion population at La Jolla Cove — training in the use of plywood “crowding boards.”

The boards are used by SeaWorld personnel and others working in close proximity to marine mammals to help safely nudge the animals along and to get around them without being bitten. A regional stranding coordinator with NOAA Fisheries (Justin Viezbicke) provided the training, confirmed Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator of NOAA’s Protected Resources Division, West Coast Region.

“It’s just largely a big plywood shield that keeps something between you and the animal,” Yates told La Jolla Light. “The lifeguards have to interact with sea lions on a fairly regular basis. … Crowding boards are a common practice for all sorts of different wildlife resource managers, but particularly with pinnipeds, to be able to protect themselves when they need to move animals from a place where they would be endangering themselves or people.”

Crowding boards are just one method local governments such as the City of San Diego can use under section 109(h) of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to legally deter sea lions or other marine mammals from remaining in an area, including the use of water jets, sprinklers, air horns or other noise-making deterrents, strobe lights, starter pistols, electric livestock fencing, slingshots, cattle prods and rubber bullets.

“If the city so chooses to exercise its authority under 109(h) of the MMPA, any city employee or contractor specified for that purpose can use crowding boards to move animals from places where they are either in danger themselves or where they have a public health or welfare implication,” Yates said.

San Diego Lifeguard Lt. Rich Stropky referred questions about the training to a city spokesperson, who did not return e-mail and phone messages about the training by press time. A spokesperson for District 1 City Council president Sherri Lightner also did not return a message asking if Lightner would advocate for the use of sea lion deterrence allowed under the MMPA provision.

The training came to light following a May 5 meeting Yates granted La Jolla Town Council (LJTC) president Steve Haskins and La Jolla Parks & Beaches (LJP&B) committee chair Dan Allen. Haskins and Allen requested the meeting, held at NOAA’s Southwest Region office in Long Beach, as a follow-up to LJTC’s April sea lion forum ( and LJP&B’s directive that the city take action to address issues related to the sea lions’ growing presence (, such as public safety and the pervasive odor from their urine and excrement.

New_sea_lion_shenanigans_1_t837Tourists at La Jolla Cove snap photos of sea lions that have become bolder and more plentiful on the beach popular with swimmers.

“It’s pretty interesting what we found out,” Haskins said. “Some of the things I heard were not things I’ve heard before. … It seems like there’s something going on, on our end, where the people with the city aren’t tuning in to what’s being said. … Apparently this is a very bad situation that’s happening all over California, Oregon and Washington. The amount of sea lions has exploded and once they take over a place, they basically don’t give it up, so you need to move quickly if you want to change their behavior. You can’t take years to decide what to do.”

Yates said several times he has reminded San Diego city officials of the measures available under the MMPA to legally harass sea lions without filing for permits or receiving NOAA or other authorization. “They’ve asked us at various times questions about 109(h) as it relates to … things going on during the years,” Yates said. “We’ve told them, yes, they have that authority under 190(h). … They don’t have to do anything with us. There’s no permitting. We don’t approve it, we don’t bless it, we don’t do anything. That’s their legal authority under the law.”

Asked if any of the federally approved deterrent methods seem to work better than others, Yates replied, “That’s the million-dollar question.

“In general, sea lions are very persistent,” he said. “They become habituated to these deterrent methods very quickly, and people up and down the California Coast are very frustrated because it’s not easy to keep them away from things that people want to keep them away from. In places where there are docks and marinas, the most effective methods have been physical structures that form barriers, but they’re strong, big animals that can jump and crush things, so when you’re building a barrier … or a fence, it’s a substantial thing.”

Yates said most noise deterrents have not proven effective, as sea lions grow easily accustomed to them.

“Some places use water effectively, but you have to consistently reinforce the animals,” he said. “If you don’t have a physical barrier that keeps them away from something you have to be very diligent in keeping them away from that spot, either physically crowding them off or using something like water or another technique that’s not going to hurt them — that’s part of the deal.”

There is no magic formula to outfox the clever, dog-like creatures, Yates noted.

“If you let them come back, they’ll be back in full force and you’ve got to start from square one, so it is a constant maintenance type of thing, which obviously puts a lot of resource strains on the city or government entities trying to do that.”

Yates said the MMPA allows the city to effectively deputize a group such as the LJTC or LJP&B to manage deterrence methods. At Moss Landing in Monterey County — where it’s estimated sea lions cause about $100,000 in damage each year — people have been tasked with fulfilling community service requirements by chasing sea lions off the dock (in lieu of picking up roadside trash).

“We’ve seen people hire contractors, we’ve seen people designate people as city representatives under that authority, even though they’re not official city employees or officials,” Yates said. “There’s a lot of room for creativity there, as long as those people are acting within the scope of what the law allows and the city is responsible for them. …

“I don’t know that that has ever been challenged in court … (but) I would think if a city documents for itself the need to exercise its authority under 109(h) and specifies the individuals who would be doing that activity, that that would likely work,” Yates added. “Each city or government entity has to kind of review that with their own eyes and their own legal (team) and their own comfort level as to how they exercise those rights.”

While the roughly 70 to 100 sea lions at La Jolla Cove are not among the tens of thousands NOAA studies off the California coast, a city-commissioned study of La Jolla’s sea lion colony by marine mammal expert Doyle Hanan is ongoing. Results of the study should be released in the coming month and could help the city assess how to move forward with possible sea lion deterrent or behavior modification techniques.

Unlike the harbor seals at Children’s Pool beach, NOAA said California sea lions almost exclusively breed and give birth in the Channel Islands, about 180 miles off the coast. Haskins said he and Allen would contact Lightner and the mayor’s office to share what they learned from NOAA and underscore the need to take immediate action. “The more we understand about the behavior and abilities of sea lions, the more it seems like it’s almost impossible to stop them,” Haskins said.

Sea Lion Update

Sea lions breed and pups are weaned (so far) only on the Channel Islands. The breeding animals leave the mainland in May and return in August and September.

* There are estimated to be 330,000 sea lions off the U.S. coast, with a 3-5 percent continuous growth rate since the 1970s. There is no theory to explain why many come at one time to mainland bluffs and beaches, such as La Jolla Cove.

* Recent pup strandings are above normal and a phenomenon of perturbations in the food supply and not related to the perceived increase in animals at La Jolla Cove.

* Elephant Seals and Guadalupe Fur Seals have been spotted on mainland beaches, and their population growth and habitat dynamics are like sea lions.

* Sea lions explore new areas and haul out where they can be comfortable. Younger males learn dominant behavior from the older bulls.

* The Maine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits harassment of sea lions in any way by members of the public. However, harassment by city, county, state or federal personnel or their contractors is allowed under MMPA section 109(h).

* Sea lions are quick learners and stubborn. The way to deter them from settling in any particular place is to make them uncomfortable. The recommended ways — all to be done together — are: physically approach and shove with a plywood shield, aka “crowding board”; make a loud noise, such as with an air horn; squirt high-pressure water on the animal’s nose, chest and or rear end.

* Any effort must be a well-planned campaign, consistently done and started early in the day. The plan needs to address what to do next if moving the sea lions is successful, since the sea lions will relocate.

* The problem will be worse if the animals feel comfortable spending the night in the location where they are a nuisance.

* Predator sound reproduction has failed where tried.

* Because sea lions can climb and/or jump as much as six feet, any fence to restrain them must be carefully engineered with spinning rungs. There is a potential problem with fencing trapping animals from returning to the sea.

* Poop cleaning needs enzyme treatment. Water alone will not work.

* Dogs and sea lions share vulnerability to the same kinds of diseases, so they must be kept away from each other.

* Numerous locations along the California and Oregon coasts have conflicts with sea lions involving boat docks. Few have conflicts involving beaches and shoreline areas like La Jolla Cove does.

* Presently there are no adopted guidelines interpreting MMPA section 109(h) for sea lion deterrence or removal.

— Compiled from NOAA officials by 
La Jolla Parks & Beaches chair, Dan Allen

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Apr 30 2015

Love ’em Or Hate ’em, Sea Lions Raise Concerns On The Columbia

402536004(Click here for slideshow)


To some people, sea lions are smart, lovable creatures that shouldn’t be harmed in any way. To others they’re loud, destructive pests that need to be controlled.

As sea lion populations grow, both sides have gripes about how these hulking pinnipeds are being managed on the Columbia River.

Some want to see wildlife managers kill more sea lions to protect fragile runs of salmon and steelhead – especially as new research suggests sea lions may be eating a lot more fish than previously thought. Others say killing sea lions is scapegoating, and it won’t solve the bigger environmental problems that put the fish at risk in the first place.

This spring, around 2,400 barking sea lions piled into Astoria’s East Mooring Basin – astonishing biologists who have been monitoring them here for years. The sea lion numbers shattered last year’s record of 1,400 of these marine mammals in the marina.

A lack of food in the ocean and a big smelt run drew them in and soon California sea lions, which can weigh 700 pounds or more apiece, had taken over the Astoria docks that should be harboring boats. That alone is problem for Bill Hunsinger, who oversees those docks as a commissioner with the Port of Astoria.

“They’ve absolutely destroyed them,” he said. “You can’t bring people down to these docks when you have this type of situation.”

But the port’s damaged, unusable docks are only the beginning of Hunsinger’s problems with sea lions that he have been sinking boats, disturbing nearby hotel guests and even biting people and their dogs, he said.

And that’s on top of all the prized spring salmon they’re eating – at times plucking them right off the lines of recreational anglers.

“The fisheries are going to be lost,” he said. “I talked to three guys who went fishing two weekends ago. They had nine fish on and never got one to the boat. Lost ’em all to sea lions.”

Experts say the overall California sea lion population is as big as it’s ever been, thanks in part to the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act’s restrictions on hunting or harming them. Fish and wildlife managers with Oregon and Washington have killed about 70 sea lions on the Columbia to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. But Hunsinger and others say they should be killing more.

To protect fish runs from sea lion predation, Columbia River tribes are hoping to get authorization from Congress to kill more sea lions – beyond what the states of Oregon and Washington are authorized to kill.

Right now, Columbia River Indian tribes’ fish commission is using non-lethal hazing to try to deter sea lions from eating salmon at Bonneville Dam – the first bottleneck for fish on the river. As thousands of returning adult salmon and steelhead swim to their spawning grounds to reproduce, the dam slows them down and makes them easy pickings for sea lions.

Below the dam, tribal members chase down sea lions and shoot firecrackers at them to push the animals farther downriver and away from the bottleneck.

But with dozens of sea lions feeding near the dam, it’s not hard to find one tearing through a fish, thrashing his head out the water to break off a bite while sea gulls swoop down for the scraps.

This is what managers call a predation event. And according to Doug Hatch, a senior fisheries biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, non-lethal hazing with firecrackers can only do so much to prevent it.

“For the times that we’re hazing, it’s pretty effective,” Hatch said. “But as soon as we leave the animals will come back.”

Hatch said more sea lions should be killed to protect fragile runs of salmon and steelhead – not just at Bonneville but throughout the lower river.

Looming over the debate about managing sea lions is an ominous number. Last year, a federal study that tracked returning salmon from the mouth of the Columbia to Bonneville Dam found that 45 percent of the fish went inexplicably missing somewhere along the way.

“The smoking gun is sea lions,” Hatch said. “Sea lion abundance has increased tremendously over the past several years – particularly this year it’s much higher than we’ve seen it before.”

It’s unclear exactly how many of the missing fish were eaten by sea lions, but if all of them were, that’s a huge portion of the salmon people are spending millions of dollars trying to protect and restore – much bigger than the 2-5 percent rate of sea lion predation of salmon documented the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Bonneville Dam.

A new experiment this year aims to fill the gaps in what we know about how many salmon sea lions are eating in the Columbia. Scientists have tagged some sea lions with accelerometers that track the distinctive head-shaking motion they make when they eat salmon. Managers are hoping that the tags will allow them to get a better count on how many fish sea lions are eating in the 146 miles of the river below Bonneville Dam.

But no matter how many salmon sea lions are eating, people who love sea lions contend that it’s wrong to kill them for doing what they naturally do.

“Sea lions are beautiful, amazing animals,” said Ninette Jones of the Sea Lion Defense Brigade. “We have just been blown away by the outpouring of support for these animals.”

Jones’ group watches over sea lions in Astoria and at Bonneville Dam. She said sea lions have a natural predator-prey relationship with salmon and it’s actually people who have put salmon at risk of extinction. Given all the other environmental problems on the Columbia River, including the dams, she said, blaming sea lions is taking the easy, cheaper way out of the complex problems people have created on the river.

“The salmon populations were going extinct when there were no sea lions in the river back in the ’80s,” she said. “So to draw the connection that the sea lions are causing the extinction of salmon it’s basically scapegoating but it’s not going to address the real cause of the extinction of salmon. Even if they killed all the sea lions it’s not going to save the salmon.”

Jones also argues having state wildlife managers killing sea lions is encouraging people to take matters into their own hands and to shoot sea lions illegally. Earlier this month, her group found sea lions bleeding on the docks in Astoria from apparent gunshot wounds.

Robin Brown, marine mammal program lead with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, defended his agency’s policy of lethally removing some sea lions. The state only kills sea lions that have been identified and observed eating salmon below Bonneville Dam, he said, and the 73 killed since 2006 represent a tiny portion of the total population.

“We try to manage for the resource that’s at the greatest risk,” Brown said. “There are over 300,000 California sea lions in the population now and that population is at no risk whatsoever. Yet a lot of these salmon and steelhead populations have been reduced, granted through the actions of people over many years, but those very small populations of salmon and steeled are at great risk of extinction.”

Back in Astoria, port commissioner Bill Hunsinger disagreed with Jones about the effect of the government’s lethal removals. He said the government needs to increase its lethal removal of sea lions to prevent more people from taking matters into their own hands and shooting them illegally. But he doesn’t disagree that sea lions are beautiful.

“Well, they are. And they’re entertaining,” he said. “But they need to go entertain somebody else in someplace else.”

Soon many of the sea lions will leave the Columbia River for their breeding grounds farther south. But there’s little doubt they’ll be back – barking and eating fish again – next spring.

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Mar 19 2015

Sea lion pup strandings may hit 2,000, but don’t blame climate change (yet)


California sea lion pups keep washing up on the state’s coastline at abnormally high numbers: more than 1,800 starving pups have been brought into rescue facilities already this year, officials reported Tuesday.

The average yearly intake for stranded pups is about 200.

Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said that he’s asking the public to be patient when it comes to rescue attempts for emaciated pups.

He said that the network won’t be able to rescue all pups and efforts to do so would hurt its ability to treat animals already in house. About 750 sea lions are being held for treatment in facilities right now.

“If we go over too many animals, the care really is lessened for all of those animals, and they all have decreased chances of survival,” Viezbicke said “Whereas, if we can focus on the ones we know we can give the best care and have the best chance of survival, we at least are giving them the best shot.”

Even reaching treatment centers is no guarantee of survival for the pups. Some are judged to be too far gone and are euthanized. Others die while undergoing treatment.

Even the ones that are successfully treated and released face difficult survival prospects. Unusually warm water off the coast holds less prey for the sea lions to forage.

“The reality is we’re putting them back into a very challenging situation, so there’s no guarantee that these animals that are being rehabbed are going to survive. It’s something we’ll be watching and monitoring for the future,” Viezbicke said.

The warm water is believed to be the cause of the high number of strandings in the first place.

As nursing mothers spend more time away on hunting trips seeking out that ever elusive prey, starving young leave their rookeries far earlier than they normally would.

Scientists said that the population of California sea lions is still strong, with estimates of total size at around 300,000 individuals.

The population has doubled from decades ago and the increased competition may be contributing to the poor feeding conditions, according to Nate Mantua, a climatologist with NOAA Fisheries.

Climate change not culpable … yet

He said the warm water isn’t likely caused by global warming because its development was too recent and too regional.

“It doesn’t look to me like a global warming pattern. It’s a direct response to the regional wind patterns that have been so persistent — including the pattern that brought us drought,” Mantua said. “I don’t really see the hallmarks of a global warming signature.”

A lack of winds from the north has kept surface water from being pushed out from the coast. That has lessened the amount of nutrient-rich upwelling of colder water.

101938-eightThe sea surface temperature map shows the unusually warm ocean water encompassing the West Coast. Darker red indicates temperatures farther above average. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

No end in sight

Mantua said the northerly winds that normally accompany the start of spring are beginning to appear in Northern California. If they persist, he said some colder water could emerge nearer to land. That could help.

But he said the effect would be localized and that a recently declared El Niño appears to be strengthening — a combination that means the warm water could last for another year.

“The bigger picture, you step back and look at the whole broad region of the Northeast Pacific Ocean, it’s likely to stay warm for much of this year,” he said.

“Unless we get a winter next year that’s more normal and a lot stormier,” he added, “I think that it might persist. And if the El Niño develops, then it becomes even more likely to persist all the way to the end of the year and to next spring.”

Even though climate change isn’t a large factor in the current water temperature rise, Mantua said models predict it will become the major cause for future warmer water.

“When we get towards the middle of this century, human-caused climate change is going to be equal and then dominant for the warming trends along the West Coast,” Mantua said.


2013 was bad, too

This is the second time in a few years that California sea lion pups have stranded at abnormally high rates. In 2013, NOAA declared an unusual mortality event for the species.

Viezbicke, of the California Stranding Network, said it would take several years of similar mass deaths to reduce numbers to a threatened level because sea lion populations are so big right now.

In fact, events like this may even strengthen the remaining population.

“Even in naturally occurring situations like this, Mother Nature can kind of control the population size out there, and those that are doing well — that are currently in this warm water situation — will probably continue to do ok,” Viezbicke said. “And those that don’t, will kind of be weeded out from the gene pool.”


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Feb 19 2015

Scientists: Warm waters, scarce prey likely cause of California sea lion strandings

The Press


California sea lions swim at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Tuesday, February 3, 2015. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

An intensifying spate of sea lion strandings on the California coast is likely caused by a shift in winds that has warmed coastal waters, making prey scarce for sea lion mothers and interfering with their ability to feed their pups, federal scientists said Wednesday.

The announcement marked the clearest answer yet to what might be affecting the sea lions, hundreds of which have come ashore malnourished and severely underweight in recent months.

With more than 940 animals, mostly pups, already admitted to rehabilitative care over the past several weeks, the state’s marine mammal centers are nearing capacity and running through resources, said Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Many sea lions won’t be saved.

Yet NOAA scientists said the situation is less alarming than would appear and doesn’t look to be tied to a disease or new malady. Instead, it likely reflects the sea lion’s acute sensitivity to a change in ocean circulation patterns. The altered winds have bathed the coast in warm water — 2 to 5 degrees warmer than usual — and made foraging for redistributed fish species more of a challenge.

“It’s unlikely to have any really critical drop in the total population,” said Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

There remain many unknowns, however, including how bad the situation will get before it starts getting better. Experts said they do not expect the situation to turn around for at least a few months.

Sea lions serve as an indicator species, Melin said, and are sometimes among the first and most visible marine creatures to reflect something amiss in the ocean environment. Their recent plight is one in a series of die-offs and stranding events beginning in 2009 on the heels of a rapid ocean warming. The population of their core prey has been somewhat diminished over the same time period, she said, so scientists will be looking for longer term implications.

January strandings were more than five times the historic average and more than twice the rate observed in 2013, when NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event, or UME. More than 1,100 sea lion strandings were recorded that year.

This year has not been declared a UME yet, though observations so far suggest it may be an even worse year, with data collected from sea lion rookeries in the Channel Islands during September and February showing that pups born last summer were already severely underweight, and in many cases, continued to lose weight over the winter, Melin said.

Most turning up on the coastline now are around 8 months old and should still be with their mothers, but appear to have weaned early, leaving the Southern California colonies in search of food, she said. Many are starving, too young to have developed the necessary skills to survive.

Scientists believe the root problem is the inability of their mothers to find sufficient food to nourish their young, most likely because the large area of warm water off the coast has driven fish and other marine life to other areas.

Yet satellite tags on some of the female sea lions who bore pups last year indicate they are staying within their usual foraging grounds, suggesting they may be having to dive deeper and work harder to feed, and thus are leaving their pups for longer periods, Melin said.

Pups left long enough will be so hungry they go off on their own to seek food, she said.

If so, this year’s event is similar to 2013, in which unavailability of prey was determined at least partly responsible. Though sea lions are opportunistic feeders, their core diet includes species rich in fatty acids like Pacific sardines, northern anchovies, rockfish, Pacific hake and market squid, some or all of which may be in short supply, Melin said.

Many pups coming ashore have secondary infections, like pneumonia, but testing on those that have not survived has not revealed evidence of an infectious disease outbreak or harmful algae blooms, which also are potential risks, scientists said.

Nate Mantua, a NOAA climatologist, said a period of strong southerly winds and weak northerly winds has spread warm water north and depressed the upwelling of cold water from deep ocean levels toward the surface.

He said the shift reflects the vagaries of weather — not more permanent climate change.

The warmer off-shore currents have coincided with a variety of shifting marine populations, causing some species to turn up in areas that are not part of their traditional habitats, Mantua said.

“There’s just a whole suite of different animals — some are really good swimmers and some are really weak swimmers — that have changed their distribution,” he said.

Sea lions, which are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, generally have thrived in recent decades but had a rough time of it since 2009. It may be that the population has reached the carrying capacity of the coast, meaning that the current problems finding sufficient food are nature’s way of restoring balance, Melin said.

Most sea lions are born in June and are totally dependent on their mothers for the first six months of their lives, experts say. They generally remain with their mothers until about 11 months of age, when they are weaned.

Where some pup strandings occur every year, it’s usually around May and June, when pups are just beginning to forage on their own, with varying degrees of success, scientists said.

This year’s strandings began months earlier, in December and January, and have accelerated in recent weeks, resulting in reports like one out of San Francisco, where last week a pup strayed onto Skyline Boulevard, about 1,000 feet and up a hill from the water. Another report this week described an emaciated young sea lion wandering into a Marina del Rey apartment complex.

Though most of the strandings have occurred in Southern California and, to a lesser degree, on the Central Coast, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, the world’s largest, has been at the forefront of providing care.

It is now responding to up to 15 ailing sea lions daily, and has more than 130 sea lions in rehab at its Marin Headlands facility, spokeswoman Sarah van Schagen said.

About 550 total are in the care of a half-dozen marine mammal centers up and down the coast.

Though the Sausalito center still has room, the growing number of strandings is making it harder and more time-consuming for rescue personnel to respond to reports. Mantua pleaded with the public to be patient with those doing their best to tend to the animals that can be saved.

Anyone who sees a stranded sea lion should report it by calling the Marine Mammal Center’s 24-hour rescue hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325) and then leave the animal alone, avoiding human or pet contact that may contribute to its stress.

Mantua encouraged anyone interested in aiding the cause to donate time, supplies and money to facilities like the Marine Mammal Center.

View original article: The Press