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Sea Lion Warfare

Updated on November 14, 2014
Sleepy sea lions
Sleepy sea lions

Sea Lion Warfare

As a life-long fisherman and lover of the ocean, I have to say this. Decades ago, before the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it was not uncommon for a sport-fishing boat to pull up to a spot in the early am and subsequently shoot the first sea lion (or “Dog”, as they are commonly called in the industry) in the head that approached the boat. I personally used to spotlight for the shooter, my Captain. He’d say “Turn the light off” just before the shot and tell the passengers that were up "it was just a warning shot" over the intercom...true that, sometimes...but not always, especially at dark-thirty in the morning. The rest of the sea lions would usually then leave the boat alone for a bit while we were in their hunting grounds. The sea lions’ hunting grounds. For a bit. Then we’d have to move.

I freely admit this now as it was long ago and it was a part of the job I’d run away and hitch-hiked to California to get. I didn’t want to lose it. Born in San Diego and growing up playing in the ocean, I had moved to Arizona at ten, was back in San Diego at 13 for half a year at Helix, then back to Tucson. At 17, I decided I wanted to go work on a fishing boat. I missed the ocean like I’d lost a part of me. The Arizona sun had finally cooked my ocean-loving gene to the surface and I couldn’t sit still on it, so off I went. I eventually succeeded after a few months of surviving on the streets of San Diego and then Long Beach and finally, San Pedro, where I finally found an opening on a sport-fishing boat. “Spotlighting” was the one duty I didn't like, but it was on my list of duties when it was ordered. Truthfully, it wasn’t an everyday thing, or even all that often. It was something only done out of “necessity” and commonly practiced in the industry at that time. No trouble from the sea lions, no trouble from the boat. That is how it was a long time ago.

In the late 80’s, when again back in the San Diego area, I fished the boats often and I thought sea lion harassment had gone away for good, certainly in the open-party sport-fishing industry. Yet, long after the Marine Mammal Protection Act was in effect (1972), I still occasionally witnessed harassment of sea lions. I haven't seen anything like it in two decades since my last return, as all of the local landings and operators I know now frown on breaking the law and don't allow it. They can incur a huge fine if they allowed it or got reported. The local boats are carrying a lot of tourists, and would get reported in a flash if they were doing any of these crimes recently reported in the news. I think 8 shot and one found with a gaff hanging out of its side have died in the past few months. Something you might see once a year, probably some idiot akin to the divers that shot the big ol’ black sea bass in the reserve and were proud of themselves a while back. So this new rash of harassment and shooting must be due to one or a few private boaters, an exceptional fishing year (for the anglers and sea lions alike) and ignorance.

It is a frustrating problem for the local ½ and ¾ day boats both off San Diego and at the Coronado Islands just south of the border. Typically, the boat pulls up to a known or metered spot and starts chumming live sardines, anchovies or both to get the bite going. The sea lions are used to this and well-trained.The sport boat has become the sea lions “roach coach” and they come to accept the easy meal, sometimes in mass.

It is hard for an angler to get a bait out through the agile and swift pinnipeds when they are thick in numbers. They know about all about hooks and anglers and will snatch bait after bait, leaving only the hook and whatever part of the bait it is attached to. I have never seen a sea lion hooked while eating baits or game-fish that were hooked. Dogs also love to snatch a large yellowtail or WSB (or even a tuna 60 miles offshore, as I have witnessed) after the angler has worn the fish down and it is near caught. You’ll be all excited and just about to holler “Gaff!” when a brown blur comes from under the boat, the rod loads, reel sings and the next time you see your fish the sea lion will be about 100 yards away, flinging it about, tossing it tumbling through the air and ripping it to shreds, only leaving a few bits for the crowd of hovering gulls that know to show up when a sea lion is making pieces out of a game-fish.

Naturally, anglers compete with seals and there really is no competition. The sea lions will win every time on an even playing field. So, anglers get frustrated and some act out. Don't. It's treated like a felony to bug them at all and it is just wrong to harm them. If they get on you, stop chumming and pull in the lines for a minute and they will go away. If they don’t leave, move, or learn how to fish through them. Just pinch a big sardine or save some mackerel or bonito for when the yellow or WSB is close to gaff and the dog is on it, and simply chum it away from the game fish. This does work sometimes. I'm not sorry that I like the challenge when a dog is around. Many times, I have to pull a trolled baitfish out of the water and just paddle on until the dog gets the idea I won't be providing a meal. It is a bummer, sometimes. But it’s just a part of the game and I don't need to whack a seal any more than I do a shark that might like the fish I just hooked. Sometimes you get the bull, sometimes the horn, but in a lifetime of fishing, I have lost relatively few fish to dogs. I usually move on, or, let the fish run if a dog is on it. It may have enough life in it to elude the dog. These are the only legal options I know of as an angler to deal with an offending sea lion.

For some people to continue to harass the marine mammals while they are protected by law, regardless of personal opinion, is harmful to the entire fishing community. You inspire those who feel that all anglers are vile for their catching of fish to rise up and fight for even more protective measures that shut down the fisheries beyond the recommendation of the science we now need rely on to offset the demand on the fishery by the human population. Those people have a large lobby and a lot of money. When the MLPA act was introduced, it became a 13-year battle to legally establish a realistic map that allows for the local fisheries to replenish themselves of the endemic species we deplete and also allow the angler sufficient access to the fishery. It was a fight to get access through the MLPA areas to fish outside of them for the human-powered vessels so we could launch with gear and land with fish in the safest place to do so. Don’t worry, if you are fishing in an MLPA area, you’ll be seen by the authorities. We anglers came close to losing a lot more area than was finally established and only through a lot of hard work, good unbiased science, dedication and money.

The scientific community knows that the sea lion population in La Jolla is getting out of hand and becoming a nuisance, as it is up and down the Pacific Coast. Thoughtful and effective measures will have to be made and politics will again enter the picture. Maiming sea lions does nothing toward the goal of a more balanced eco system or population reduction. Residents and businesses close to La Jolla cove know what sea lion over-population smells like. Helpful political pressure will come from outside the fishing community as well, as soon as enough money is lost over the stench. Then maybe science will allow that, though they are off the menu for hunting or harming, some sort of control or relocation for the sea lions will be necessary. Man has replaced the sea lions natural land predators with his kind self and his good-intentioned laws. The sea lions aquatic predators are in endangered numbers. The remarkably agile and swift sea lion will flourish and eventually overpopulate anywhere it is allowed to in those conditions. –DSPowell

From NOAA.Gov

“If prosecuted for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, civil or criminal penalties could include:

  • Civil penalties up to $11,000
  • Up to 1 year in prison plus criminal fines
  • Forfeiture of the vessel involved, including penalties for that vessel up to $25,000”

From Wiki

“The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) was the first act of the United States Congress to call specifically for an ecosystem approach to natural resource management and conservation. It was signed into law on October 21, 1972 (and took effect 60 days later on December 21, 1972) by President Richard Nixon. MMPA prohibits the taking of marine mammals, and enacts a moratorium on the import, export, and sale of any marine mammal, along with any marine mammal part or product within the United States. The Act defines "take" as "the act of hunting, killing, capture, and/or harassment of any marine mammal; or, the attempt at such." The MMPA defines harassment as "any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance which has the potential to either: a. injure a marine mammal in the wild, or b. disturb a marine mammal by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, which includes, but is not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering." The MMPA provides for enforcement of its prohibitions, and for the issuance of regulations to implement its legislative goals.”

Sea lions La Jolla
Sea lions La Jolla

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