La Jolla Cove odors return after summer reprieve, city cites sea lions as the source

The sea lion excrement problem is a relatively new one, said Bill Harris of the city’s Transportation and Storm Water Department. The sea lion populations have significantly increased in the past two years; they didn’t start frequenting the Cove until recently. FILE

By Pat Sherman

Though the first round of a two-part cleanup of bird excrement on the cliffs above La Jolla Cove seemed to eradicate the foul smell through the summer, curiously, the stench has returned — even after a second application of a microbial agent that digests the bird guano was applied in September.

Now, the city says the source of the smell is not cormorants, but excrement from sea lions at La Jolla Cove — a problem that could prove more difficult and time consuming to remedy than the bird guano.

Last week, merchants and residents met with representatives from the offices of District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner and Interim Mayor Todd Gloria, as well as members of the city’s Park and Recreation Department, lifeguards and others to discuss the problem.

“The stink is as bad as it has ever been,” causing clients to flee local businesses,” La Jolla Village Merchants Association President Phil Coller said. “We’ve had some major clients … canceling a very expensive (hotel) suite, saying, ‘We can’t stand it; we’re leaving.’”

Bill Harris, head of the city’s Transportation and Storm Water Department, said the city is looking at “anything and everything” to solve the problem, “within the bounds of what we’re allowed to do.”

“We have to go through a whole host and maze of regulations in order to determine which ones are allowable, let alone which one would work, but Park and Recreation and the city as a whole is going to be doing that, looking for good ideas. …

“The problem is a relatively new one,” Harris said. “The sea lion populations have jumped very much in the past couple of years alone. There’s no real history of sea lions picking this spot, even when the fence (above La Jolla Cove) was put in more than 10 years ago. They just didn’t start using it until recently.”

Keith Merkel, a consulting biologist hired by the city this year to oversee cleanup of the Cove, said the odor is different today than it was at the beginning of the year, though it is “still very bad.”

“The strong, burning ammonia smell that you were historically getting out there (from the birds) is more or less gone,” Merkel said. “The sea lions are the dominant smell out there at this point … and a big part of it is that the adult sea lions that were off during the spring and summer months on the island rookeries are now back.”

Merkel said there is a wide variability in the smell of see lion excrement, based on conditions such as their diet.

“If they (feed on) a large school of very greasy fish like anchovies or sardines, they bring all that back and dump it on the rocks and it smells really bad,” he said. “Conversely, if they’re feeding mostly on local rock fish and low-oil fish the smell is not nearly that bad. It’s one of those things that change very quickly from day to day or period to period.”



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