Dead In The Water
Concerns about sea lion violence prompt dialogue over Marine Protection Act.
Thursday, February 19, 1998
Another dead sea lion clutters the peaceful atmosphere of Del Monte beach. This one is marked by the small but distinct puncture wound of a common caliber rifle. According to Florian Graner, a marine biologist who found the animal just after Christmas, "It''s a young male who received a deadly hit behind his right fore flipper."
Graner found another one later that week. "An older female washed ashore who''d been shot in the neck," he says. In early January, Graner came across "a very large and seemingly healthy male." He says that the latter showed minimal external signs of harm, but clouded eyes, broken bones inside his head and a furrow skimming his upper palate confirmed that a bullet had entered the animal''s open mouth. Three sea lion victims of violence washed up on one Monterey beach during the holiday season. An ugly New Year''s reminder of an ongoing controversy.
Gruesome sights like these are neither expected nor appreciated along the serene shores of the Monterey Bay. But according to John Robinson, spokesperson for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, "this does happen." From 1992 to 1996, the Marine Mammal Center treated roughly 90 sea lions with gunshot wounds found in Monterey County alone.
Emotions have run high ever since California sea lions were legally protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Today these creatures make their presence known to humans who alternately protect and bemoan, battle and study, enjoy and argue over them. The sea lions are big, noisy and smart. But they''re like the proverbial pea under the princess'' mattress. Their presence is felt more and more these days, and they''re creating strange bedfellows along the Central Coast and beyond.
Fisherfolk, scientists and environmentalists all report that the 1972 Act and its subsequent reauthorizations have enhanced this particular marine mammal population. According to a March, 1997 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "The California sea lion population.has increased steadily at an average annual rate of more than 5 percent since the mid-1970s." Thus the MMPA seems successful in terms of sea lion survival, which as yet shows "no evidence that it has reached its optimal sustainable population level," according to the report.
But some commercial and sport fishermen are frustrated by sea lions competing for their catch. Richard Hughett, executive director of the Fishermen''s Alliance of Monterey Bay (FAMB), says, "The population curve for sea lions is going up while the population curves for salmon and steelhead are going down." The latest mission statement of FAMB makes further claims. "The loss of saltwater fish to sea lions has contributed to the elimination of many jobs in the commercial and sport fishing industries," it states.
A community non-profit organization called the Monterey Bay Salmon Trout Project works to restore native fish populations. "We conduct data collection to help explain the decline of species like the coho salmon and steelhead trout," says Dave Streig, fisheries biologist and hatchery manager for the project. He says that the causes for the decline of certain fish species are extremely complex, including development, disease and river management problems. There is also concern that individual, "problem" seals and sea lions prey on female fish carrying eggs during their spawn run up the river. "Our data appears to show a skewed sex ratio of returning fish, pointing to possible future genetic bottlenecks," he says. The trend is more pronounced during drought years when animals are hungrier.
The Marine Mammal Center (MMC) in Sausalito is another non-profit agency which targets the rescue and rehabilitation of injured sea lions. Staff at the center deal firsthand with the results of bullets that leave some of these intelligent, vigorous animals blind or having seizures from brain damage. "We believe this is ethically unacceptable," says Susan Andres, a spokesperson for the center. "Between 1986 and 1996, approximately 12 percent of California sea lions admitted to MMC were shot.a majority of the shot animals stranded in Monterey County, followed by Santa Cruz County," she says. "About 50 percent of shot animals are euthanized, 25 percent die during treatment and 25 percent recover and are released."
Alongside these concerns are governmental constraints felt by those charged with enforcing the MMPA. "Officially I''m the only enforcement agent between Half Moon Bay and Long Beach," says Roy Torres of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Torres goes on to explain the difficulties involved in locating and prosecuting people who shoot marine mammals illegally, using small weapons on large bodies of water.
James Harvey, a professor for Cal State University whose research is based at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, is one of a handful of pioneers studying the local ocean frontier. "Of the entire population of California sea lions only a portion, mostly males, migrate northwards through Monterey Bay. And far fewer actually reside here," says Harvey. He adds that an even smaller number of these actually interfere with fisheries. "But that doesn''t mean that there are easy, short-term solutions."
That is why local organizations like Save Our Shores (SOS) of Santa Cruz are working to build collaboration between seemingly unlikely bedfellows. Last August, the agency teamed with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the local Marine Sanctuary, the American Fisheries'' Society, NMFS and the Fishermen''s Alliance to present a forum titled The Search for Balance: Sea Lions, Salmon and People. "We wanted to create an avenue for open dialogue and information-sharing, without pitting one group against another," says SOS Executive Director Vicki Nichols. These groups will host a follow-up forum this April. "We hope to have a moderator who helps participants reach consensus, so that, ideally, the outcomes serve as a guide for legislators," Nichols says.
She and the others are anticipating the 1999 round of Marine Mammal Protection Act reauthorization, which occurs every five years. "Last June a referendum was launched in Congress suggesting a return to pre-1994 legislation," says Joe Cordero of the NMFS. Back then, fishermen were allowed to shoot sea lions who interfered with their catch or gear (now they may do so only when threatened with bodily harm). Cordero says the NMFS report to Congress recommends that the fishermen and game wardens be allowed to shoot seals and sea lions but also that, as an alternative, further research be undertaken to find new, non-lethal deterrents.
"[The referendum] sidesteps the larger problem of habitat degradation and the need to restore vital spawning grounds," says Nichols. "Proposals to shoot seals and sea lions without addressing the bigger picture miss the key point of this issue, which is that we want to protect fish and the fishing industry."
When these diverse groups sit down to talk together again this April, they hope to diffuse some of the emotional tension surrounding the issue and let rational discussion prevail. After all, 1998 has been designated by the United Nations as International Year of the Oceans.so, despite El Ni¤o, this may be just the time to resolve more than a decade of debates over sea lions.