Competing for ocean's bounty

The slender barracuda was no match for Earl Strech. The 82-year-old fisherman pumped and reeled like a pro, giving it no slack, wearing it down until it finally could be reeled to the boat.

But just as the speedy game fish was about to clear the water, Strech's rod bent sharply toward the sea, then straightened with a twang. Gone was his prize, and with it his $6 lure.


A large sea lion surfaced off the bow, looking toward Strech as if to say thanks, a breakfast of barracuda filling its jaws.

Increasingly, Strech and thousands of fellow sportfishermen are no match for California's voracious, and multiplying, sea lions. On some trips, the powerful and intelligent mammals are gobbling catches as fast as the fish are hooked. They follow boats for hours. Inside marinas, they're living even higher, tearing through the nets of bait wells and devouring a night's haul in a matter of minutes.


"You don't know how many lures I have out there," said Strech, a resident of Lakewood, Calif., pointing out at the Pacific. "But hell, they was here before we was here."

Not all fishermen are so philosophical. Boat owners and operators of sportfishing landings are calling for reopening the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which banned hunting and has contributed mightily to a surge in the population of California sea lions from a low of 10,000 to about 200,000 today. An additional 75,000 or more reside off Baja California.

"In the old days we used to just shoot the hell out of them - kill 'em," said Don Ashley, 54, owner of Pierpoint Landing and Marina Sportfishing in Long Beach, Calif.

Evidence is mounting that, despite the law, some fishermen are bringing the old days back.

In early May, an adult male sea lion swam ashore at an Orange County beach with at least seven gunshot wounds to the head. When it was discovered by passersby, the sea lion was looking skyward, struggling to breathe, blood dripping from its mouth. It was taken to Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Care Center in Laguna Beach and "humanely euthanized."

In June, a 2-year-old female sea lion came ashore partially paralyzed at a beach in Los Angeles County with a bullet wound in her spine. It was taken to the Marine Mammal Care Center in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles and euthanized a day later.

Last year, 596 sea lions were reported stranded on the coast, 21 of them with bullet wounds. The year before, when El Nino's warm waters displaced fish stocks and accelerated competition between fishermen and sea mammals, more than 2,500 strandings were reported and 77 animals were found to have gunshot wounds.

"Normally people tend to be better shots," said Jackie Ott, director of the San Pedro care facility. "So we don't get a lot" of sea lions.


Authorities investigate these cases but rarely get anywhere because there rarely are witnesses.

"We have made a few cases over the years," said Brett Schneider, a special agent with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Once in a while you get lucky."

Dinner is served

Dropping anchor, the sport boat captains say, is tantamount to ringing the dinner bell. Sea lions hear the chain coursing through the water and know that anglers will soon be hooking fish.

The crews can legally toss so-called "seal bombs" - small explosives considerably more powerful than firecrackers - which are meant to scare the mammals away. Instead, the booming sound seems to alert more sea lions that dinner is on the way.

"I still like to throw 'em [even though they don't work] because it makes me feel better," said Don Brockman, 42, part-owner of Davey's Locker Sportfishing in Newport Beach and owner of the sportfishing boat Freelance and two squid-fishing vessels. "I guarantee you I spend about $10,000 a year, just in seal bombs."


The males can grow to 800 pounds, females to 250. And the animals typically eat 5 percent to 8 percent of their body weight a day. When food is abundant, they'll eat only the choicest parts - preferring the gills and bellies - and leave the rest of the carcass.

In 1996, the latest year for which figures are available, researchers with the California Department of Fish and Game determined through logs of party boat captains that 15 percent of the trips originating in Central and Northern California suffered at least some depredation by sea lions, while 13 percent of Southern California trips were affected.

Sea lions attacked 6.9 percent of all salmon caught by anglers, 5.4 percent of barracuda and 3.2 percent of mackerel. In March 1996, sea lions removed 2,700 salmon from the hooks of sport fishermen. In June they grabbed a reported 6,500 barracuda and in August they nabbed 3,600 mackerel. These numbers do not include thousands of anglers who fished aboard private boats that year.

Threat to business

"It's something we have to live with," said Dick Helgren, 66, owner of Helgren's Sportfishing in Oceanside. "What I'm afraid of, though, is that people eventually are going to get fed up with the sea lions' impacting their catch and won't come back."

"The sea lion is the biggest threat to the sportfishing industry," Rick Oefinger, 44, owner of Del Rey Sportfishing and the Marina del Rey Bait Co., said.


Other than the dollar amount for the destruction of gear, the cost of the problem is "unquantifiable," said Robert Fletcher, president of the Sportfishing Association of California, a San Diego-based industry group that represents the interests of 75 vessels operating at 23 ports from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Brockman said landing operators probably spend an extra $50 a day per boat for fuel so they can move from spot to spot, trying to escape the sea lions. That's never easy, and in fact it has become a common ploy for skippers to try to pass sea lions off to other vessels by driving close to other vessels on runs to other spots.

Russ Harmon at Cisco's Sportfishing in Oxnard said bait-well repair costs have run well into the thousands of dollars.

It is illegal to kill or harass any marine mammal unless it poses a direct threat to public safety. Violators face maximum terms of five years in jail and maximum fines of $25,000. The term "harassment" basically translates into any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance.

In 1988, Congress granted commercial fishermen the right - under strict guidelines - to kill sea lions as a last resort to protect their gear and their catch. Despite a 1992 legislative proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service supporting this authority, it was discontinued during the last reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1994.

With the act up for another reauthorization, the National Marine Fisheries Service and Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission have filed a draft report recommending, among other things, that the authority be reinstated "until such time that effective nonlethal means are developed."


The report also suggests that a framework be established to "provide procedures for lethal removal of California sea lions or Pacific harbor seals where these pinniped species are impacting [Endangered Species Act] salmonids" and also in situations where they conflict with human activities "such as at fishery sites and marinas."