To quash La Jolla Cove odors, city seeks advice from other sea lion towns

By Pat Sherman

San Diego city officials all the way up the office of Interim Mayor Todd Gloria are working toward a solution for the pervasive stench at La Jolla Cove — the source of which city officials say is now largely from the excrement of a sea lion colony there.

The city spent about $100,000 this year on two separately timed applications of environmentally sensitive foam that eliminated years of pungent bird excrement from the cliffs above the Cove.

Though the work seemed to temporarily rid the Cove of its reek — the odor has returned, nearly as pungent as before.

Outcry from La Jolla merchants who have lost business from the smell prompted Stacey LoMedico, the city’s new assistant chief operating officer (formerly director of park and recreation) to issue a memo stating that city staff would consult the city’s risk management department and city attorney’s office to determine whether an opening and/or gate can be installed in the fence on Coast Boulevard to make it easier for humans to access the bluffs at La Jolla Cove — their presence a possible deterrent to coax sea lions from the area.

Outside assistance

In an effort to reduce the number of sea lions at La Jolla Cove (and to create an overall plan to severely reduce the odor), San Diego city officials are analyzing methods employed by other municipalities along the California coast that have unwieldy sea lion numbers.

The City of Monterey, also experiencing a proliferation of sea lions, has trained staff and volunteers to walk its docks generating noise to shoo them away.

Scott Pryor, a marine operations supervisor with the City of Monterey, said Monterey’s paid “animal behavior modification” specialists have spooked seal lions with the Theremin-like sound produced by wiggling a metal tape measure, by jangling keys or squirting them with Super Soakers — a few of the tamer methods a government may use to thin sea lions or other marine mammal profusions under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

It is estimated that there are as many as 241,000 sea lions residing off the coast of California and Baja, Mexico. Any a given time there may be between 500 and 1,500 sea lions off the coast of Monterey, though during periodic, two-week infestations, Pryor said, as many as 5,000 mostly male sea lions (each weighing an average 700 pounds) have been known to take over Monterey Bay.

The creatures haul out on docks, boat ramps and coastal walking trails, capsize boats, destroy dock plumping and leave large amounts of bacteria-laden fecal matter in their wake.

“All that stuff costs the citizens money,” Pryor said.

Methods employed

In Monterey, which uses the image of sea lions to encourage tourism on its website, public perception is crucial, Pryor said

“To what degree do you want to make it look like you’re hazing them?” he questioned. “The danger is that people think they’re cute. … Mothers and fathers want their kids to get a picture next to an animal that’s unpredictable. It’s about public safety, health and protecting people’s personal property.”

At Bonneville Dam near the Oregon-Washington border — where California sea lions threaten salmon populations — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which administers to MMPA, has allowed the states to trap and kill a number of sea lions each year, by lethal injection.

Under section 109(h) of the MMPA, officials, employees and designees of governments have the authority to harass, capture or euthanize a marine mammal if such action is done to protect public health and welfare. A government may also remove a marine mammal by non-lethal methods if it is determined to be a public nuisance.

In Monterey, the city at times has erected two-foot tall, plywood barriers in front of sea lion haul out sites, which Pryor said is usually enough to cause them to move to a fenced-off rock jetty on the northwest side of the harbor, about a third of a mile way.

There, the public can view the sea lions safely, from behind a fence.

Controlling such incursions is particularly challenging, said NOAA marine mammal biologist Monica DeAngelis, who has helped municipalities create and study sea lion deterrent methods.

California sea lions — which have been taught to jump through hoops of fire and balance balls on their noses in theme park shows — multiply faster than seals and other pinnipeds because they are highly intelligent, adaptable and opportunistic.

“You have to stay one step ahead; you have to have a lot of tools in your basket,” said DeAngelis, noting that one sea lion will often challenge a deterrent method, and if successful, others will follow.

The best way to control a sea lion population is to employ a variety of deterrent methods simultaneously, she said.

“It’s that randomness that works really well at continually deterring them,” DeAngelis said, noting that no one method will work all the time.

“We’re trying to build this creative toolbox of methods; we are open to anything and everything.”

Deterring sea lions by making noise has, overall, not always been successful, said DeAngelis.

More effective deterrents, she said, include spraying them with water (when they haul out, they don’t like to get wet) and the use of gyrating, inflatable air dancers like those seen at street fairs and car dealerships (which have been particularly effective in coaxing sea lions from docks at Moss Landing, California for long periods).

DeAngelis worked with San Diego-based Hanan and Associates marine consulting company to create a fence that prevents marine mammals from hauling out at specific sites, which proved effective in several Southern California spots. The fence rungs are encased in PVC pipe, which spins, preventing sea lions from gaining a flipper-hold when they attempt to breach the fence.

However, she noted, “It’s permanent, so that can be somewhat unattractive for a lot of these public areas.”

At Moss Landing and in other areas, use of a low-level electrical current has also proved an effective barrier/deterrent to keep sea lions from hauling out. Though the current annoys the sea lions, it is not harmful to the marine mammals or humans, DeAngelis said.

“Researchers could put both hands on it and didn’t feel it,” she said of the current, developed by Smith-Root Fisheries Technology.

Fate of the Cove fence

Removing all or a portion of the fence above La Jolla Cove is an idea that has gathered considerable community consensus during the past year, in part fueled by recollections of a time when people walked down along the cliffs daily, and there were no sea lions (before installation of the fence more than a decade ago).

Early last week, Gina Coburn, communications director for the city attorney’s office, e-mailed

La Jolla Light

to say that the city attorney’s office had sent the mayor’s office and other city staff “confidential advice … pertaining to legal issues and risks” associated with facilitating easier human access to the unstable bluffs.

“There is no legal prohibition against removing a portion of the existing fence adjacent to the bluffs,” Coburn reaffirmed in her e-mail, though adding, “we believe input from a safety expert should be considered by city staff if they wish to go forward.”

Alex Roth, a spokesperson for Interim Mayor Gloria, said the mayor, LoMedico and other city officials are “analyzing” that advice to determine “the best course of action” to eliminate the odor.

“Every option remains on the table,” Roth said, noting that removing or opening the fence is not the only solution city staff is considering. “We recognize this is an issue that needs to be addressed. It’s high on the priority list of this administration.”