REPORT IS IN! City handed sea lion expert’s findings about La Jolla’s “problem”

La Jolla Light has learned that the extensive study on the sea lion population at La Jolla Cove by marine mammal expert Doyle Hanan, Ph.D., of Hanan & Associates, Inc. has been completed and submitted to the city, and will be distributed to the appropriate parties, including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the Department of Park & Rec. Contracted by the city in February 2015, the study is intended to “identify potential opportunities for changing the behavior or haul-out conditions of the sea lion colony now expanding along the La Jolla coastline.”

The La Jolla Town Council will review the findings at its 5 p.m. Thursday, July 14 meeting at La Jolla Rec Center, 615 Prospect St., which Town Council President Ann Kerr Bache is calling “Crisis at the Cove: Part Two.” The meeting is open to the public.

Citing empirical data and observation, the 39-page study confirms that the sea lions at La Jolla Cove constitute a “problem,” and the city can refer to the study when considering a solution.

Based on their behavior and perceived habituation to humans, the study concludes, in part, “Continual harassment of California sea lions off haul-out areas may temporarily reduce California sea lion presence and may temporarily reduce their interactions in the La Jolla Cove area, but they are not likely to abandon the area. Considering that California sea lions are not likely to leave the La Jolla area, the city is in the position to develop strategies of how to best live with them and hopefully take advantage of their presence.

“In recent years, California sea lions have expanded use of the rocky terraces and beaches at La Jolla Cove resulting in increased interaction with the public and significant animal waste build up. The accumulation of animal waste in close proximity to urbanized and frequently used space raises concerns for public health and welfare, and for the safety of people and wild animals in close proximity to one another.”

It continues, “Hanan & Associates, Inc. performed California sea lion counts and enumeration by age and sex in the La Jolla Cove area during the period March 11, 2015 to March 19, 2016. Behavioral observations were made at all hours of the day and night. On the United States West Coast, these pinnipeds are abundant and not listed as endangered or threatened, and as a result, the population is expanding and occupying new territory. This expansion has increased interactions with people and property. ... California sea lions haul out and occupy at least 10 different areas in and around La Jolla Cove near San Diego, California. They haul out year round and at all times of day and night in locations that are heavily utilized by the La Jolla community, visitors and tourists.”

The observation of nine areas along La Jolla Cove provided quantitative data on the number of sea lions and their behavior at different times of day and throughout the year. The study also looked at possible problems with humans interacting with sea lions, and options for further research opportunities.

Among the observations, the study found several concerns with human/sea lion interactions and the two-fold problem of people wanting to use the beach where the sea lions haul out, but also wanting to see wild animals in their natural environment. It also noted that sea lions have migrated up the stairs at La Jolla Cove to the park and sidewalk area, causing problems therein.

Community groups have waited with bated breath for the report, as many were told the city could take no action on the problematic pinniped population and the resulting Cove stench until the report was filed. For example, when the Town Council sea lion committee proposed its rolling barrier plan (stringing plastic cylinders across The Cove to keep the sea lions from hauling out on the cliffs) and when La Jolla Parks & Beaches demanded action citing the burgeoning sea lion presence as a health and safety issue, both were told the city was awaiting the study before taking any action.

In June, facing a growing frustration from residents, Village businesses and Cove swimmers (a health advisory was posted at The Cove in May due to high levels of bacteria in the water), La Jolla Town Council held it’s first “Crisis at the Cove” forum to examine the problem. However, they too, were told the city was awaiting review of the study before taking or approving any course of action.

Of the Town Council’s proposed barrier plan, Hanan’s findings suggest, “(The barriers) would require a good deal of maintenance, would be highly subject to large surf action, would not blend with the environment, and likely would require California Coastal Commission approval and perhaps a California Environmental Quality Act environment report. After careful consideration, I believe that California sea lions would find ways to go around them if positioned and used as proposed.”

The study’s options for moving and/or excluding the sea lions from certain areas explored include setting up an ongoing program or selection of a firm to assist in the use of NOAA-approved deterrence methods — the installation of gates and latches at the base of each cement stairway to/from the La Jolla Cove beach and/or low voltage livestock fencing or other form of fencing.

Conversely, as part of the city’s opportunity to “take advantage of (the sea lion’s) presence,” the study also states, “Perhaps setting up interpretive learning centers at La Jolla Cove and Children’s Pool, which already are large tourist attractions, would add to the city’s allure as an ecotourism location.”