Town Council to City: Solve sea lion issue at the Cove

Meeting with mayor and community leaders set for July 7

Short of calling city officials inept, the La Jolla Town Council (LJTC) and those attending the organization’s June 11 meeting at La Jolla Rec Center voiced aggravation over what they view as the city’s refusal to address the sea lion problem at La Jolla Cove.

The growing sea lion colony there, believed to be the main cause of the nauseating odor permeating the Village, as well as safety hazards to beach users, will only become more difficult to manage with each passing hour of inaction, LJTC trustees said.

Last month LJTC president Steve Haskins and La Jolla Parks and Beaches (LJP&B) chair Dan Allen met with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — which administers the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Haskins said Chris Yates with NOAA’s Protected Resources Division told him the MMPA gives the city authority to use a litany of humane methods to deter the sea lions from gathering on the beach and bluffs at the Cove (read more at

“The way the statute is written in the MMPA, government officials of any kind — including city officials — can go down there today and push those sea lions off the rocks with crowding boards (hand-held wood shields) or spray them with hoses. They don’t need any permits; they don’t need any permission,” Haskins said.

Yates has also e-mailed city officials several times during the past few years, informing officials of their autonomy to take action against the sea lions, Haskins said.

Use of crowding boards

LJP&B member Bill Robbins said he witnessed a NOAA employee offer lifeguards at the Cove a demonstration on the proper use of crowding boards — essentially a NOAA-approved shield with handles that a lifeguard or other public employee can use to nudge sea lions from the rocks or beach, similar to those used by other marine mammal experts and trainers at and zoos marine mammal parks.

“They encourage this because they feel that it’s safer for everyone if sea lions and people aren’t mixing so closely,” Haskins said. “I can’t tell you why the city is not (instructing lifeguards) to do this.”

LJTC first vice-president Joe Pitrofsky made a motion that the LJTC send letters to the office of the mayor and City Council President Sherri Lightner requesting that “the city take immediate action to resolve the current crisis involving the takeover of La Jolla Cove by the sea lions.

“Specifically,” the June 17 letter reads, “we want the city to use methods of deterrence including, but not limited to, crowding boards and the installation of a temporary, low-standing fence that will prevent the sea lions from congregating in dry, rocky areas. In addition, we request the continued regular cleanup of sea lion and bird feces from the rocks and beach, and that the city install gates or other barriers on the stairways leading to and from La Jolla Cove beach to prevent sea lions from blocking the stairs.”

Looking long-term

The motion to send the letter passed unanimously, with a “friendly amendment” suggested by trustee Peter Wulff and president Haskins that urges the city also address the problem in the long-term, via a “coastal environmental assessment, with biological experts, including NOAA experts, for the purpose of establishing a comprehensive shoreline management plan,” which La Jolla’s Parks & Beaches group advocated for in its own letter to the city earlier this year.

“Such a study should yield explanations of the present, abnormal sea lion and seabird population levels and behaviors, give a prediction of how the situation will play out, and provide a basis for instituting remedial actions, if called for,” the amendment states.

Whether the city finally takes action will be a test of its leadership, Wulff said. “If they’re not leaders let it be known that they’re not leaders,” he said. “As the Town Council we (should) look at other agencies who can provide the leadership — whether it’s our congressman or the wildlife management people.”

Waiting on expert’s report

Several months ago the city hired marine mammal expert Doyle Hanan of Hanan & Associates to study the sea lion colony and craft solutions to address the problem, though as yet his report has not been completed and released to the public.

LJTC trustee Natasha Alexander agreed the odor issue must be addressed, though expressed concern that the sea lions might be forced off the beach entirely, robbing tourists of the ability to enjoy them. “To eliminate the sea lions from La Jolla itself would be like tearing something off that has belonged to La Jolla for years,” she said.

However, Barber Track resident Jeff Chasan countered, “The smell and feces that are coming from these animals far outweigh the benefits.”

Pitrofsky said that while La Jolla has been a major tourist destination for 100 years, 

the sea lions have only been a problem for a couple of years, albeit a major one.

“I won’t even take clients to restaurants if they’re on the ocean side of Prospect Street because the smell is unbearable,” he said.

“You can’t walk along Coast Walk without almost throwing up. I don’t really think that’s positive for tourism. No one’s saying we have to get rid of the sea lions, but we want to control the population so that they live like they have for 98 years of tourism in La Jolla, not like the last two.”

Trustee Ann Kerr suggested that the Town Council give the city a deadline by which to take action, adding that if the city doesn’t act, the Town Council should work with the community to raise money to solve the problem itself.

Sea lion summit set

Haskins said a meeting between himself, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other La Jolla leaders and business owners has been scheduled for July 7, just days before the next LJTC meeting. Pitrofsky said he felt it unnecessary to impose a deadline on the city until the outcome of that meeting is known.

In regard to the work being done by Hanan & Associates, city spokesperson Tim Graham told La Jolla Light Hanan has been providing city Park & Rec staff with “regular briefings regarding findings,” though he declined to elaborate on what those findings are at this time. “The Park & Rec team will be talking with Doyle again toward the end of this month and will determine if more research and observations are warranted,” he said. “There is funding in the 2016 fiscal year budget that will allow the department to conduct a more extensive assessment of coastal conditions leading to what may become a comprehensive shoreline management plan. Park & Rec is working with Doyle to explore the potential scope for that assessment and will report back, once we have an outline for that work.”

Robbins said he has seen Hanan down at the Cove at night, counting the sea lions via the use of night-vision goggles. Robbins said he himself recently counted 84 sea lions on the beach during the day, and as many 70 at night, in addition to those lounging on the adjacent bluffs — more than five times as many as there were a decade ago.

“This has all come about in the last two years. The sea lions are really getting used to people, they’re charging at swimmers … and starting to think it’s their home,” he said. “The man from NOAA has told (the city) again and again, the worst thing you can do is let them sleep on the beach, and that’s what’s happened. … If they start giving birth there, the mothers will protect the young. If they start really breeding there, we will have the bulls fighting … and more problems with biting.”

Cormorants update

Conversely, Robbins said the number of reported nests from cormorant birds is dwindling. For the past several years, the city has been cleaning up bird guano left on the bluffs — another source of the odor — through periodic applications of a guano-digesting microbial foam. However, the foam is ineffective for cleaning up sea lion waste.