City must consult federal agency when removing dead sea lions at La Jolla Cove

A solution for carcass recovery and stench?

Some members of La Jolla Parks and Beaches city advisory group say adding a gate to reinstate public access to the bluffs above La Jolla Cove would both disperse the cormorants believed to be causing the ongoing stench, and provide access to lifeguards and Park and Rec staff for removing dead birds and marine mammals from the bluff.

To report dead marine mammals:

(858) 546-7162

Information on sea lion pup ‘starvation’:

By Pat Sherman

Tourists strolling above La Jolla Cove last week need only gaze out at the ocean to spot at least five dead sea lions, the carcass of one marine mammal drooping morbidly from a coastal rock formation like a Salvador Dali clock.

The deaths are the result of an unexplained starvation epidemic among young sea lions that has researchers from SeaWorld and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scrambling for an explanation.

It also had residents questioning whether anyone is responsible for removing the remains. Until a remedy for the sea lion pups’ mysterious affliction can be found, more such deaths are expected. NOAA has deemed the crisis an “unusual mortality event.”

In the first three months of 2013, SeaWorld rescued 264 malnourished and dehydrated sea lions along the San Diego County coastline. During the same period last year, there were only 32 sea lion rescues (the average is 27).

For all counties dealing with the crisis — including San Diego, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura — the historical average sea lion rescues from January to March is 131. This year, there were 1,098 rescues during the same period, with sea lions coming in at about a quarter of the weight they would normally be.

La Jollan Mary Ellen Morgan said the nearly desiccated carcass of at least one sea lion had been on the rocks above the Cove for more than a month.

“When we have tourists coming down, it’s not our best moment to have dead sea lion debris,” Morgan said, noting that the smell of the decomposing animals could exacerbate the existing odor problem caused by bird excrement on those rocks.

The City of San Diego’s Dead Animal Removal department responded to a report of the remains, though Morgan said they left the dead seals, citing “inaccessibility of the bluffs.” The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said they do not dispose of dead marine mammals.

San Diego lifeguards finally removed four dead sea lions and one dead pelican last weekend. The task of removing dead marine mammals from the shoreline is typically handled by lifeguards or Park and Recreation staff, as long the animals are in an area that is safe to access, and only after consulting with officials at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The federal agency is responsible for the conservation and protection of marine mammals and their habitat, as well as enforcement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

San Diego Lifeguard Lt. John Everhart said lifeguards first contacted NOAA officials about removing the animals April 4.

According to a July 2009 City of San Diego memo that supersedes previous city protocol on the disposal of dead marine mammals, a lifeguard or Park and Recreation department supervisor must phone NOAA to alert the agency of the dead animal, though under the MMPA, city employees have the authority to “take” a carcass first if it is for the protection of human health, the memo states, in part.

“Such (removal) may cause surrounding animals to react, including flushing into the water of animals that are hauled out,” the memo continues. “It is important that city staff take all steps to minimize the impact of any carcass recovery by conducting the efforts quietly and cautiously, and waiting for optimal conditions, i.e., when few other (marine mammals) are on the beach, particularly in the area of the dead animal.”

Only then must the removal be reported to the National Marine Fisheries Service, within 30 days via a completed “Stranding Report Form.”

If a dead mammal is found in a location that is inaccessible by beach maintenance equipment, Park and Recreation or lifeguard staff is advised to assess the situation for: employee health and safety, the type and size of the animal, location, proximity of the carcass to a populated area, and whether the decomposing animal would create a significant public health concern.

The staff is then advised to determine whether the mammal should be removed or remain in a location where tides can flush it to sea.

“Private citizens do have to request authorization prior to a disposal,” said Sarah Wilkin, a NOAA marine mammal stranding coordinator and MMPA authority.

“Lifeguards can go ahead and dispose of carcasses if they find them. We might ask that they coordinate with us, because there might be tissue samples that we could take from those animals.”

Before any removal, Everhart said lifeguards significantly weigh whether the removal will disrupt a colony.

“The two dead animals I’ve seen (recently) were right in the midst of literally hundreds of sea lions, he said. “If there was someone drowning at the Children’s Pool and a lifeguard had to run through the seals to make a rescue, the seals would flush and that would be okay because we were saving someone’s life. This is a little different, where no one’s in immediate danger.”

Starvation amid a population boom

Despite the current crisis, California’s sea lion population has been increasing by about 5 percent per year, Wilkin said. The rise is believed to be partly due to protections afforded since the MMPA was adopted in 1972. The current population is about 300,000 she said.

Everhart said he has witnessed a marked increase in the population of both sea lions and seals off the La Jolla coast. The sea lion population at La Jolla Cove has spiked significantly within the past four years, he said.

“In my 29-year-career, it’s almost unprecedented the number of sea lions that are there now,” he said. “Where we used to have a couple dozen, it seems like there are now 400 or 500.”

Wilkin said the pups primarily feed on small schooling fish such as sardines, anchovies and herring.

Both Pacific harbor seals and California sea lions also feed on garibaldi, the numbers of which have been diminishing off the La Jolla coast. However, Wilkin said seals and sea lions have evolved in such a way that they don’t typically compete for food sources.

“Generally sea lions are very flexible as far as what they can eat as they get older ... and can adapt quickly to new situations — but unfortunately, not the pups,” Wilkin said.

“On a typical year, animals would still be at the rookery (in Channel Islands) still learning to forage with their moms,” she said. “Most of their nutrition should still be coming from their mom. They would be weaning starting next month, at the end of June — and that is usually when we start getting strandings of animals, (when they’re) trying to figure out life on their own for the first time.”

Wilkin said it will take two weeks before the results of sea lion necropsy reports are available. NOAA is also awaiting the results of toxicology reports on the animals.


“Sea lion found resting in patio chair at La Jolla hotel part of unexplained starvation trend” at