La Jolla leaders discuss sea lion issue with NOAA


Lifeguards at La Jolla Cove trained in use of ‘crowding boards’ to deter pinnipeds

Last week lifeguards monitoring La Jolla Cove were given what could be the first of several tools in an arsenal to help manage the growing sea lion population at La Jolla Cove — training in the use of plywood “crowding boards.”

The boards are used by SeaWorld personnel and others working in close proximity to marine mammals to help safely nudge the animals along and to get around them without being bitten. A regional stranding coordinator with NOAA Fisheries (Justin Viezbicke) provided the training, confirmed Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator of NOAA’s Protected Resources Division, West Coast Region.

“It’s just largely a big plywood shield that keeps something between you and the animal,” Yates told La Jolla Light. “The lifeguards have to interact with sea lions on a fairly regular basis. … Crowding boards are a common practice for all sorts of different wildlife resource managers, but particularly with pinnipeds, to be able to protect themselves when they need to move animals from a place where they would be endangering themselves or people.”

Crowding boards are just one method local governments such as the City of San Diego can use under section 109(h) of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to legally deter sea lions or other marine mammals from remaining in an area, including the use of water jets, sprinklers, air horns or other noise-making deterrents, strobe lights, starter pistols, electric livestock fencing, slingshots, cattle prods and rubber bullets.

“If the city so chooses to exercise its authority under 109(h) of the MMPA, any city employee or contractor specified for that purpose can use crowding boards to move animals from places where they are either in danger themselves or where they have a public health or welfare implication,” Yates said.

San Diego Lifeguard Lt. Rich Stropky referred questions about the training to a city spokesperson, who did not return e-mail and phone messages about the training by press time. A spokesperson for District 1 City Council president Sherri Lightner also did not return a message asking if Lightner would advocate for the use of sea lion deterrence allowed under the MMPA provision.

The training came to light following a May 5 meeting Yates granted La Jolla Town Council (LJTC) president Steve Haskins and La Jolla Parks & Beaches (LJP&B) committee chair Dan Allen. Haskins and Allen requested the meeting, held at NOAA’s Southwest Region office in Long Beach, as a follow-up to LJTC’s April sea lion forum ( and LJP&B’s directive that the city take action to address issues related to the sea lions’ growing presence (, such as public safety and the pervasive odor from their urnine and excrement.

“It’s pretty interesting what we found out,” Haskins said. “Some of the things I heard were not things I’ve heard before. … It seems like there’s something going on, on our end, where the people with the city aren’t tuning in to what’s being said. … Apparently this is a very bad situation that’s happening all over California, Oregon and Washington. The amount of sea lions has exploded and once they take over a place, they basically don’t give it up, so you need to move quickly if you want to change their behavior. You can’t take years to decide what to do.”

Yates said several times he has reminded San Diego city officials of the measures available under the MMPA to legally harass sea lions without filing for permits or receiving NOAA or other authorization. “They’ve asked us at various times questions about 109(h) as it relates to … things going on during the years,” Yates said. “We’ve told them, yes, they have that authority under 190(h). … They don’t have to do anything with us. There’s no permitting. We don’t approve it, we don’t bless it, we don’t do anything. That’s their legal authority under the law.”

Asked if any of the federally approved deterrent methods seem to work better than others, Yates replied, “That’s the million-dollar question.

“In general, sea lions are very persistent,” he said. “They become habituated to these deterrent methods very quickly, and people up and down the California Coast are very frustrated because it’s not easy to keep them away from things that people want to keep them away from. In places where there are docks and marinas, the most effective methods have been physical structures that form barriers, but they’re strong, big animals that can jump and crush things, so when you’re building a barrier … or a fence, it’s a substantial thing.”

Yates said most noise deterrents have not proven effective, as sea lions grow easily accustomed to them.

“Some places use water effectively, but you have to consistently reinforce the animals,” he said. “If you don’t have a physical barrier that keeps them away from something you have to be very diligent in keeping them away from that spot, either physically crowding them off or using something like water or another technique that’s not going to hurt them — that’s part of the deal.”

There is no magic formula to outfox the clever, dog-like creatures, Yates noted.

“If you let them come back, they’ll be back in full force and you’ve got to start from square one, so it is a constant maintenance type of thing, which obviously puts a lot of resource strains on the city or government entities trying to do that.”

Yates said the MMPA allows the city to effectively deputize a group such as the LJTC or LJP&B to manage deterrence methods. At Moss Landing in Monterey County — where it’s estimated sea lions cause about $100,000 in damage each year — people have been tasked with fulfilling community service requirements by chasing sea lions off the dock (in lieu of picking up roadside trash).

“We’ve seen people hire contractors, we’ve seen people designate people as city representatives under that authority, even though they’re not official city employees or officials,” Yates said. “There’s a lot of room for creativity there, as long as those people are acting within the scope of what the law allows and the city is responsible for them. ...

“I don’t know that that has ever been challenged in court … (but) I would think if a city documents for itself the need to exercise its authority under 109(h) and specifies the individuals who would be doing that activity, that that would likely work,” Yates added. “Each city or government entity has to kind of review that with their own eyes and their own legal (team) and their own comfort level as to how they exercise those rights.”

While the roughly 70 to 100 sea lions at La Jolla Cove are not among the tens of thousands NOAA studies off the California coast, a city-commissioned study of La Jolla’s sea lion colony by marine mammal expert Doyle Hanan is ongoing. Results of the study should be released in the coming month and could help the city assess how to move forward with possible sea lion deterrent or behavior modification techniques.

Unlike the harbor seals at Children’s Pool beach, NOAA said California sea lions almost exclusively breed and give birth in the Channel Islands, about 180 miles off the coast. Haskins said he and Allen would contact Lightner and the mayor’s office to share what they learned from NOAA and underscore the need to take immediate action. “The more we understand about the behavior and abilities of sea lions, the more it seems like it’s almost impossible to stop them,” Haskins said.

Sea Lion Update

* Sea lions breed and pups are weaned (so far) only on the Channel Islands. The breeding animals leave the mainland in May and return in August and September.

* There are estimated to be 330,000 sea lions off the U.S. coast, with a 3-5 percent continuous growth rate since the 1970s. There is no theory to explain why many come at one time to mainland bluffs and beaches, such as La Jolla Cove.

* Recent pup strandings are above normal and a phenomenon of perturbations in the food supply and not related to the perceived increase in animals at La Jolla Cove.

* Elephant Seals and Guadalupe Fur Seals have been spotted on mainland beaches, and their population growth and habitat dynamics are like sea lions.

* Sea lions explore new areas and haul out where they can be comfortable. Younger males learn dominant behavior from the older bulls.

* The Maine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits harassment of sea lions in any way by members of the public. However, harassment by city, county, state or federal personnel or their contractors is allowed under MMPA section 109(h).

* Sea lions are quick learners and stubborn. The way to deter them from settling in any particular place is to make them uncomfortable. The recommended ways — all to be done together — are: physically approach and shove with a plywood shield, aka “crowding board”; make a loud noise, such as with an air horn; squirt high-pressure water on the animal’s nose, chest and or rear end.

* Any effort must be a well-planned campaign, consistently done and started early in the day. The plan needs to address what to do next if moving the sea lions is successful, since the sea lions will relocate.

* The problem will be worse if the animals feel comfortable spending the night in the location where they are a nuisance.

* Predator sound reproduction has failed where tried.

* Because sea lions can climb and/or jump as much as six feet, any fence to restrain them must be carefully engineered with spinning rungs. There is a potential problem with fencing trapping animals from returning to the sea.

* Poop cleaning needs enzyme treatment. Water alone will not work.

* Dogs and sea lions share vulnerability to the same kinds of diseases, so they must be kept away from each other.

* Numerous locations along the California and Oregon coasts have conflicts with sea lions involving boat docks. Few have conflicts involving beaches and shoreline areas like La Jolla Cove does.

* Presently there are no adopted guidelines interpreting MMPA section 109(h) for sea lion deterrence or removal. u

— Compiled from NOAA officials by 
La Jolla Parks & Beaches chair, Dan Allen

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