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Blake Warren – ON THE HOOK

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Tuesday, February 06, 2018
What a pair
Thursday, August 09, 2018
No you're not


Time to reassess things? You ain’t lion
Chances are, if you fish California’s coastal waters with any regularity, you’ve had – or at least have seen – one instance of a sea lion stealing a hooked fish on the line with impudence. If you are among the few who work the bait barges along our coast or if you fish commercially, the dogs likely cause you major grief and sometimes, serious problems, on a routine basis. And if you’re one of the truly unlucky, you might have had a too-close-for-comfort encounter with one, or even been bitten by one of these buggers. And the situation certainly isn’t getting any better.

Those of us who fish our coast even just occasionally already well know that these guys are a real and legitimate issue, and have been for some time. It’s sure as heck isn’t a secret to your average SoCal fisherman.


sealionsCALIFORNIA SEA LIONS were recently deemed to have reached their “natural carrying capacity,” according to a recently released NOAA report, meaning sea lion numbers have grown to the maximum population a species can reach based on the region’s available food. The sea lion population has boomed from just under 90,000 in 1975 to over 250,000 today.


But just recently on Jan. 17, a National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association (NOAA) study backed up exactly what most of us anglers have known for years... there are simply too many of these damned things here in 2018, and it seems that the time is ripe to reevaluate the whole situation.


The recent NOAA study revealed that the California sea lion population has nearly tripled in the past four decades, soaring from just under 89,000 in 1975 to over a quarter million (257,606) in 2014. Since being listed as a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) — which passed overwhelmingly in both the U.S. House and Senate in 1972 — California sea lions have become the first mammal species along the entirety of the West Coast to recover to its “natural carrying capacity,” or, the maximum population a particular species can reach based on the region’s available food. That, my friends, is legitimate reason enough to seriously rethink things in regard to sea lions and at least push the powers that be to reassess their protected listing and urge some type of game plan in dealing with these brazen sea mammals going forward. It’s becoming an ever-growing necessity, not merely an option.


The sea lions’ serial hooked-fish theft up and down the coast is undoubtedly a giant pain in the backside for all anglers, but that’s not the only issue the sea dogs pose. Broken docks. Busted bait cages. A handful of bitten swimmers. These guys are even responsible for sunken boats in a few instances. And all those great white sightings along the coast last year? Don’t think for a second that the burgeoning sea lion population isn’t playing at least a decent-sized role in drawing in the apex predators and keeping them tight to our beaches. And that’s not to mention the effects on the local ecosystem on the whole, as the lions continue to scarf up tons of anchovies, sardines, etc.


The Marine Mammal Protection act has proven extremely effective in the case of sea lions but we have now reached the crest of the wave where we have to look at the effects of it breaking — it works both ways: then the yin, now the yang. Just as those who pushed the legislation through 45 years ago protecting the species were just and correct in doing so to preserve the natural resource, the yo-yo has now hit the end of its knot and the situation needs to be addressed from the other end of the spectrum. It’s not simply a one-way street we can travel down forever.


As anglers, most of us understand the balance of nature in the Pacific Ocean as well as anyone. After all, there is no teacher quite like first-hand experience. And most of us also understand our role in being stewards of the environment and the importance of conservation and the preservation of the natural resources and the sport we love for both ourselves and future generations to enjoy. And as most of us also know, the best decisions regarding how we deal with our natural marine resources — and all of our natural resources, for that matter – are rarely made or truly understood by those wearing suits in Sacramento or Washington D.C.


It’s a delicate dance that must be constantly two-stepped. Just as there are times for species that are dwindling in numbers for whatever reason to be protected, there are also times for those protections to be lifted to varying degrees when there is ample scientific evidence that they should be for the sake of the bigger picture and the greater good of the environment on the whole. Sure seems to me that we’re right about there in this particular instance, or at least very close.


The numerous issues that the growing sea lion population is posing are only growing. And this recent NOAA study slots in the scientific backing to support it. It at least merits to be considered sooner rather than later.


Don’t take this all the wrong way, though. This isn’t exactly a call to arms either. But we should at least look at ways to deal with “problem” sea lions, just as we do with “problem insert-mammal-here” of numerous other species, like mountain lions or bears for example. There should at least be something that can be done in regard to particular sea lions that are known to have attacked humans or that are overly aggressive, those that are causing property damage and generally creating a consistent nuisance. It’s certainly a logical place to start.


Just over two years ago, a San Diego man was posing for a photo with a fish on a boat in Mission Bay when a sea lion surged out of the water and grabbed the man in an attempt to snatch the fish. The man suffered several bites and was dragged to the bottom of the bay before he was able to free himself and get back on the boat. In just May of last year, a young girl was grabbed off a dock and pulled into the water. And just as recently as Jan. 11, 2018, a female swimmer was bitten in San Francisco Bay — that attack coming on the heels of two different swimmers being bitten in mid-December in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park Cove, causing a closure of the area for at least four days. When the area reopened, yet another swimmer was bitten in late December.


Throw in those particular sea lions that are repeat offenders in causing varying degrees of property damage in various harbors and bays, and there you have yourselves at least a healthy handful of “problem animals” that we should probably consider finding a way to properly deal with. And that’s even without bringing the factor of how the lions affect fishing on the whole into the equation.


These problem sea lions have been dealt with before, so there is some precedent here. Federal officials in 2008 permitted the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho to kill approximately 80 sea lions a year that were congregating at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and eating large quantities of endangered spring-run Chinook salmon. The repeat offenders were simply branded with a mark, and then if they continue to eat the fish, they were trapped and euthanized. Something similar in this case would only serve as a logical method of dealing with problem sea lions in our backyard that are biting folks and destroying property.


With the sea lion population reaching its natural carrying capacity, the NOAA report states in its ‘Management Implications’ section: “… the determination that a population is at OSP (optimum sustainable population) provides the opportunity for individual states to request a transfer of the authority for management and conservation under the MMPA from NMFS to the state.”


This essentially means that at the current population level (according to the NOAA study), California can apply for autonomy in managing the sea lions. And since the Golden State is home to more of them than anywhere else on the West Coast, our state is most likely to bear the brunt of the issues caused by the rebounding sea lion population — and it would probably be a good idea to acquire the legal means to manage things locally and address certain issues, rather than merely remaining under the restraining blanket of the federal MMPA.


The only times sea lion populations have ebbed is during El Niño events, but history has shown them to bounce back strongly in the ensuing cold-water cycles.


If anything, we ought to at least keep a close eye on things in the coming years and consider a new game plan should the lion population keep booming.


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