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

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.”

Merkel said the adult sea lions also tend to climb up higher on the rocks, defecating in areas that don’t get cleansed by tides as often. He said the application of the microbial foam by Blue Eagle Distribution (a total cost of about $100,000) worked well on the bird guano and sea lion excrement on the cliffs, though it’s probably not a viable solution for treating the sea lion waste at the Cove.

“The urine is pretty bad too, so the pools out there are really rank when they form,” he said.

“The bigger problem really is the magnitude of time you’d have to spend treating (the sea lion waste) and the cost of treating — you treat one day and the next night everything’s loaded up again. It’s just not realistic as your primary source of treatment.”

Harris added, “You’d have to be down there almost all the time to put enough of the material down to make an impact. There’s just that much of it, and it’s spread out and caught in every little nook and cranny on the cliffs because it’s a slurry, rather than something that dries up immediately and cakes onto the rock like the bird guano.”

Merkel said the harbor seal colony hauled out to the south at Children’s Pool doesn’t smell as bad, in part because seals are smaller and don’t defecate as high on the rocks.

“Principally the issues are not the waste itself, but where it’s deposited,” he said.

A sound solution?

To control the problem, Harris said the city is considering some form of allowable harassment. In 1994, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was amended to include a process by which citizens can apply for authorization to coax marine mammals from an area via harassment, referred to as an Incidental Harassment Authorization. In 2009, the city considered a plan to disperse the seal colony at Children’s Pool by playing the amplified sound of dogs barking.

“It’s not really what it sounds like,” Harris said. “(Harassment) is the technical term for just making them a little less comfortable with where they’re at. That might mean somebody moving through the area. It might mean a little bit of noise.”

While Harris said the city has been advised that the oft-floated idea of building a barge offshore to attract sea lions from the beach would only attract more sea lions to the area, he said there are some biological remedies that could work.

“We’ve been told that there’s certain kinds of native plants that give off an odor that the sea lions find objectionable,” he said.

However, the city also has to consider whether coaxing the sea lions along would merely cause them to haul out at La Jolla Shores, Children’s Pool or WindanSea beach.

“We may just be shifting the odor issue to some other neighborhood if we just do what the community is suggesting in shooing these animals away,” Harris said. “It’s something that needs to be looked at a little bit more holistically, and in concert with a biologist and resource agency that we have in partnership on this issue.”

In an e-mailed statement, Interim Mayor Gloria told

La Jolla Light

he is, “well aware of the ongoing concerns about the odor near La Jolla Cove.”

“I am investigating mitigation options with various city departments and Councilmember Lightner’s office,” he said.

Jill Esterbrooks, Lightner’s communications director, said La Jolla’s council representative is “pushing hard” for the formation of a coastal management plan her office would spearhead to “help address the proliferation of sea lions, seals and birds,” and will make it a budget priority.

“We would be looking at best practices from other cities and municipalities up and down the California Coast who deal with the same issues (such as) Pacific Grove, San Francisco and Santa Barbara,” Esterbrooks said. “They all deal with seals and sea lions, so we’re looking to see what they do, how they manage it.

“It’s a priority for Sherri, because we don’t want to see short term solutions … We know that these animals continue to proliferate along our shorelines. It’s not going away.”

Esterbooks said the city should have a decision on whether to remove the fence above La Jolla Cove within weeks. Some community members and business owners are advocating strongly for its removal, or to add a gate to it, so people can walk down onto the rocks at their own risk, deterring birds and marine mammals from congregating there.

“The feeling is that even if folks were allowed to walk along there, that’s not going to deter the sea lions, because they’ve already established themselves and that’s already a haul out for them,” Esterbrooks said.

Esterbrooks said obtaining permits from state and federal agencies to clean the sea lion waste “could take anywhere from six to eight months to two to three years … even if we could.

“There’s only been like six exemptions that have been given … and those have all been (for) Scripps (Institution of Oceanography) and all these research institutes.

“Maybe we’ll have a wet winter, which will help wash the rocks and the cliff sides,” she said. “If we have the high tides, that helps.”