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Guest commentary: More warning signs at Point La Jolla don’t do enough to reduce human/sea lion contact

People gather at Point La Jolla with sea lions nearby.
(Courtesy of Ben Gish)

The windswept rocks along the coastline of Point La Jolla are home to a year-round rookery of California sea lions. The rookery sees consistent sea lion activity, with the marine mammals resting, basking, breeding and pupping in their natural environment. However, the rookery also sees constant human activity as beach visitors and tourists encroach on the sea lion habitat seeking an up-close photo, a selfie or just a better look.

Sea lions are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which protects them against activities such as harassment and establishes a 50-yard distance (or half a football field) guideline that humans should adhere to when near the wild animals.

The situation at Point La Jolla is an ongoing human/wildlife conflict issue in which progress to mitigate and eliminate human encroachment has been painfully slow. As a graduate student with Miami University, throughout the summer and fall semesters for 2021, I undertook an observational study on human activity and the efficacy of warning signs in Point La Jolla.

Back in June, the city of San Diego approved some additional signs warning people to stay away from the sea lions, including verbiage such as “Do not approach the sea lions.” There were signs stenciled onto the short boardwalk wall, as well as several moveable A-frame warning signs that were periodically placed in different spots. Two permanent warning signs have stood at Point La Jolla for years, including an educational sign along the boardwalk wall, as well as a simpler warning sign posted on a staircase that leads to the rookery.

I gathered an equivalent amount of data before and after the additional warning signs were installed. My observational study involved performing survey counts of the amount of people along the boardwalk vs. the amount of people near the sea lions at each 10-minute interval of my study sessions. In this scenario, traversing off the established boardwalk (by either climbing over the short wall or descending down a staircase at the end of the boardwalk), brought an individual too close to the sea lions, violating the 50-yard distance guideline under the MMPA.

I also logged any harassment incidents that I witnessed while doing my survey counts. I based my metrics on what the MMPA defines as harassment, which includes any direct acts of pursuit, torment or annoyance of the wild animals or acts that have the potential to disrupt natural behavioral patterns. Thus, touching the sea lions or waking a sea lion from rest would fall into the category of harassment.

This commentary originally was written as a letter to San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava, city Parks & Recreation Department Director Andy Field and LaCava policy advisor Brian Elliott.

After thousands of people were counted, my results held a consistent trend: More warning signs were not successful in significantly reducing human encroachment on the sea lions. Upon crunching the numbers of my months-long study, there was only a 4 percent drop in the number of people who approached the sea lions after the additional warning signs were put in place. Statistically speaking, a 4 percent decrease in this scenario is largely insignificant.

The amount of harassment incidents also did not dramatically recede after the extra warning signs were added. Throughout my study, harassment incidents were shown to increase with the numbers of people descending into the area to get close to the sea lions. The signs are intended to reduce harassment incidents, but harassment is directly linked to the amount of people going down to the rookery to go near the sea lions.

However, the most interesting finding of my study was that the creation of a physical barrier between the sea lions and easy beach access points was the most successful in reducing human traffic near the sea lion rookery and therefore reducing the incidents of sea lion harassment.

As mentioned above, several A-frame warning signs were set up near the rookery. Occasionally, one of the A-frame signs would be placed at the top of the staircase that led down to the rookery, which most people used to go down to see the animals. Adding up all the times I surveyed when the A-frame sign could be construed as preventing entrance to the stairwell, 98 percent of the individuals counted during those times stayed along the boardwalk, while only 2 percent approached the sea lions. Zero harassment incidents were recorded. This finding is significant and evidence that seeking a solution to this problem may lie in eliminating physical access to the rookery in Point La Jolla.

People tend to take the path of least resistance, and the stairwell serves as an open invitation for tourists and beach visitors to approach the sea lions, without knowledge of how their behavior can be affecting or harassing them.

My work as a graduate student continues as I search for empirical evidence of legitimate and attainable solutions to this ongoing human/sea lion conflict. I started my graduate program in 2019 and have done previous research and observations in Point La Jolla. I am set to graduate in late 2022 and hope that we as a community can achieve a solution that protects the sea lions from consistent human encroachment and encourages respectful wildlife viewing habits for the public.

Ben Gish is a graduate student at Miami University in Ohio studying conservation biology and focusing on human/wildlife conflict.