WEST COAST AN­GLERS ab­hor sea li­ons — with good rea­son. These clever pin­nipeds, adored by the gen­eral pub­lic for their cute tricks and clown­ish be­hav­ior at theme parks such as SeaWorld, learned long ago to follow sport-fish­ing boats, like so many kids run­ning af­ter ice cream trucks. • It’s not ice cream that sea li­ons crave. In­stead, they slurp up chum, snatch live baits and grab onto hooked fish, and eat those re­leased. Some sea li­ons even leap aboard boats to steal fish. • That’s what hap­pened to Dan Car­lin in April 2015. But Car­lin suf­fered more than the loss of a fish. The San Diego an­gler was pos­ing for a photo with a Cal­i­for­nia yel­low­tail on

his boat in Mis­sion Bay when a big, ag­gres­sive Cal­i­for­nia sea lion jumped into the boat and bit into the yel­low­tail in the same ex­act place where Car­lin’s left hand was hold­ing the fish. His wife, Tr­ish, cap­tured that very mo­ment on camera.

The story does not stop there. The sea lion fell back into the water, main­tain­ing its grip and drag­ging the yel­low­tail — and Car­lin — over the side and un­der­wa­ter. Af­ter about 20 sec­onds, the sea lion let go of the an­gler, but then bit Car­lin on the foot as the an­gler swam for the boat. He spent two days in the hos­pi­tal, re­ceiv­ing a strong dose of an­tibi­otics and 20 stitches to close the wounds.


This is the West Coast sea lion scourge in the ex­treme. And it seems to be get­ting worse. That’s be­cause pop­u­la­tions of sea li­ons have ex­ploded, thanks in large part to the Marine Mam­mal Pro­tec­tion Act. This fed­eral law was passed in 1972 to help avert dec­i­ma­tion and help re­build pop­u­la­tions of marine mam­mals in all ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters of the United States. It pro­tects por­poises, whales, sea ot­ters, seals and, yes, sea li­ons.

The good news is that the MMPA worked. In the past 46 years, a num­ber of marine-mam­mal species have re­bounded nicely, es­pe­cially the pop­u­la­tion of the Cal­i­for­nia sea li­ons. But many an­glers con­tend that the ever-ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion of these marine mam­mals has thrown the West Coast marine ecosystem out of balance.

Fish­er­men seethe with con­tempt for these an­i­mals, which can reach 860 pounds. “We need to start killing them to con­trol the pop­u­la­tion,” says Dave Han­son, a fish­ing guide based in Cal­i­for­nia’s Dana Point Har­bor. “Oth­er­wise, they will con­tinue to ruin fish­ing for ev­ery­one.”

Re­searchers find it dif­fi­cult to count the ac­tual num­ber of sea li­ons, says Charles Vil­la­tana, fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist for the Na­tional Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice West Coast ob­server pro­gram.

“In­stead we sur­vey the num­ber of pups born at es­tab­lished Cal­i­for­nia sea lion rook­eries dur­ing each breed­ing sea­son,” Vil­la­tana ex­plains. “This serves an in­di­ca­tor of pop­u­la­tion trends.”

When the MMPA was en­acted in the ’70s, about 12,000 pups were born each year, ac­cord­ing to data from the NMFS. In past decades, the birth rate has spiked up and down, in­clud­ing a big dip in the late ’90s. Yet, on av­er­age, pup counts have in­creased by 5.4 per­cent an­nu­ally be­tween 1975 and 2008, NMFS data in­di­cates. By 2011, the pup count had swelled to more than 60,000. To­day, NMFS pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates hover around 250,000 to 275,000 Cal­i­for­nia sea li­ons and 71,000 Steller sea li­ons.

The MMPA is not the sole rea­son for the boom in Cal­i­for­nia sea lion pop­u­la­tions. Lack of pre­da­tion plays a role. Apex preda­tors, pri­mar­ily great white sharks, might or­di­nar­ily help hold sea lion pop­u­la­tions in check.

How­ever, great whites suf­fered from over­fish­ing along the West Coast in the 1970s and ’80s, and this led to a scarcity of these sharks, which in turn al­lowed sea lion num­bers to ex­pand. In 1994, great whites re­ceived le­gal pro­tec­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, and there is now evidence in­di­cat­ing that the num­bers are ris­ing.

In cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, for ex­am­ple, re­searchers are track­ing at least 2,400 adults along the coast and off­shore is­lands. Bur­geon­ing sea lion pop­u­la­tions help sus­tain adult great whites and fuel the pop­u­la­tion growth of this shark species.

Mean­while, sea li­ons have be­come par­tic­u­larly an­noy­ing for those fish­ing along the coast of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and its off­shore is­lands such as Santa Bar­bara, Santa Catalina and San Cle­mente. But these aren’t the only places. Salmon an­glers in the Columbia River rou­tinely lose hooked salmon to ag­gres­sive Cal­i­for­nia and Steller sea li­ons. Here’s how sport fish­er­men have learned to deal with the prob­lem­atic pin­nipeds, known with dis­dain as bowsers, dogs and knot­heads. EASY MEALS Re­mem­ber Yogi the Bear car­toons and the sign that read “Don’t Feed the Bears”? The same ap­plies to sea li­ons. A big part of the prob­lem is that many of these marine mam­mals have be­come ha­bit­u­ated to hu­mans, con­di­tioned to as­so­ciate peo­ple and man-made ob­jects with easy meals. Many tourists feed sea li­ons in­ten­tion­ally be­cause the doe-eyed an­i­mals look cute and cud­dly.

How­ever, it’s largely un­in­ten­tional feed­ing that draws sea li­ons to fish­ing boats. In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, live-bait fish­ing is very pop­u­lar, and


many com­mer­cial pas­sen­ger fish­ing ves­sels (aka party boats) an­chor up and chum with live bait such as an­chovies and sar­dines. This is un­de­ni­ably ef­fec­tive in at­tract­ing game fish such as cal­ico bass and Cal­i­for­nia yel­low­tail, but it also draws in sea li­ons. The drone of the party boat’s diesel gen­er­a­tor and the rat­tle of the chain as the boat sets an­chor serve as lunch bells to the ed­u­cated pin­nipeds.

Sea li­ons not only gob­ble down the live chum, but they have also be­come adept at nip­ping off hooked baits while avoid­ing the hook it­self. Hun­gry sea li­ons also tend to scare away game fish. An­glers quickly grow dis­cour­aged when the dogs are ca­vort­ing around the boat. It can ren­der even the best fish­ing spot a lost cause.

“Most days, the sea li­ons are so thick and per­sis­tent, we can’t keep a live bait in the water for more than a minute,” says Han­son, who reg­u­larly fishes Santa Catalina and San Cle­mente is­lands. “And if we do hook a nice fish, the dogs are on it al­most im­me­di­ately.”

To get rid of the sea li­ons, some cap­tains play a wait­ing game, with­hold­ing chum and live baits un­til the of­fend­ing sea lion goes look­ing for an­other boat from which to freeload. Han­son likes to lay all of the fish­ing rods on the deck, be­liev­ing that sea li­ons have learned to equate the sticks with hu­man fish­ing ac­tiv­ity. On other boats, an­glers might con­tinue to fish, but with ar­ti­fi­cial lures, which sea li­ons for­tu­nately ig­nore. Once the nui­sance is gone, chum­ming and live-bait fish­ing can re­sume.


Sea li­ons some­times refuse to aban­don a spot; then, the best course of ac­tion is to move to a new lo­ca­tion and hope the bowser does not follow. Of­ten, a sea lion will find an­other boat to ha­rass rather than ex­pend a lot of en­ergy fol­low­ing a boat.

“Many times, you just have to pull up and leave,” Han­son says. “Once a dog fix­ates on your boat and won’t leave, you’re just wast­ing bait and your time. It’s an ex­er­cise in frus­tra­tion.”

A new lo­ca­tion that’s a fairly long dis­tance from the pre­vi­ous one — at least 3 to 4 miles — pre­vents the orig­i­nal an­i­mal from eas­ily fol­low­ing along. Fast, pow­er­ful pri­vate boats carry the ad­van­tage over slower-mov­ing party boats when it comes to evad­ing sea li­ons. The pin­nipeds find it much eas­ier to tag along with the big­ger party boats that cruise at around 12 to 15 mph ver­sus a speedy cen­ter-con­sole. Also, party boats put out a lot more food in the form of chum and live bait than do pri­vate boats.


An­glers can also em­ploy cer­tain de­ter­rents to scare away sea li­ons. The MMPA was amended in 1994 to al­low for the use of non­lethal means to dis­cour­age sea li­ons from en­gag­ing in prob­lem­atic be­hav­ior.

Le­gal de­ter­rents in­clude vis­ual, au­dio and phys­i­cal tech­niques. On the vis­ual side, the Na­tional Oceano­graphic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion web­site points specif­i­cally to boat haz­ing and cir­cling with­out strik­ing the

an­i­mal. Noise de­ter­rents out­lined by NOAA in­clude pound­ing on the hull, py­rotech­nics such as un­der­wa­ter fire­crack­ers (known as seal bombs), starter pis­tols, and horns, bells and whis­tles.

How­ever, none of these prove highly ef­fec­tive, and can even cre­ate the op­po­site ef­fect. Some boat­ing an­glers — par­tic­u­larly those us­ing lights at night to at­tract schools of mar­ket squid for bait — be­lieve that sea li­ons have learned to equate the dis­tant boom of seal bombs with a din­ner bell, and swim to­ward the sound rather than away.

Phys­i­cal-con­tact de­ter­rents work bet­ter. Those al­lowed by NOAA in­clude sling shots, paint-ball guns (with water-sol­u­ble, non­toxic paint balls), and non­lethal weapons such as game stingers, sabot rounds and rub­ber bul­lets.

How­ever, NOAA frowns on au­to­matic fire due to the in­creased risk to the pub­lic. No live am­mu­ni­tion, sharp pro­jec­tiles, gaffs, spears, har­poons, nets or poi­son baits may be used.

To use any of the le­gal de­ter­rents, an­glers must be ac­tively fish­ing with gear de­ployed, and sea li­ons need to be dis­play­ing prob­lem­atic be­hav­ior, such as chas­ing a hooked fish. Also, dis­charge of firearms is pro­hib­ited within most lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions. So you can’t shoot rub­ber bul­lets at a prob­lem­atic sea lion in the ma­rina.

Even where firearm dis­charge is al­lowed, down­range aware­ness is crit­i­cal, es­pe­cially when us­ing rub­ber bul­lets with a firearm or fir­ing a pow­er­ful pel­let gun. The rounds can ric­o­chet off the water and strike an­other boat and its oc­cu­pants.


Santa Bar­bara Is­land sits some 50 miles off the coast of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. It’s the smallest of the Chan­nel Is­lands, yet it’s home to a huge Cal­i­for­nia sea lion rook­ery that hauls out on the beaches of this islet. When yel­low­tail and white seabass are biting, packs of the pin­nipeds take to the water and roam the grounds to pick off fish al­most as soon as they are hooked.

On a trip this past sum­mer, my crew and I found a se­cret to min­i­miz­ing losses to sea li­ons: rel­a­tively heavy tackle. We fished for Cal­i­for­nia yel­low­tail with the boat on the an­chor, us­ing 65-pound braided line and 40-pound fluoro­car­bon top shots. With the drags but­toned


tight, the pow­er­ful yel­low­tail — which ranged up to 25 pounds in weight — pulled a min­i­mal amount of line. That helped shorten the bat­tles and the time in which a sea lion might have the op­por­tu­nity to grab the fish.

Also, many of the yel­lows rock­eted from the depths as soon as a sea lion closed in. With the loose line, the yel­low­tail could eas­ily out­run a sea lion. In the mean­time, crewmem­bers turned the reel handle as fast as pos­si­ble to catch up. A num­ber of the fish took refuge di­rectly un­der the hull once they reached the sur­face, thwart­ing the sea lion’s at­tack and mak­ing it easy to pull the yel­low out from un­der the boat and gaff it quickly. We did not lose a sin­gle fish to sea li­ons.

The next day, two friends of mine fished the same area with lighter tackle and suf­fered a high loss ra­tio to sea li­ons, which tore away more than 50 per­cent of their fish.


A some­what con­tro­ver­sial tech­nique is used by some an­glers to keep sea li­ons away from hooked fish — one that re­in­forces the sea li­ons’ as­so­ci­a­tion of fish­ing boats with food but also can keep a sea lion from steal­ing a nice fish.

In this de­coy move, an­glers keep a less de­sir­able fish such as a bonito in the fish box. If and when an an­gler hooks a nice fish such as hal­ibut, yel­low­tail or white seabass, and spots a sea lion clos­ing in, a crewmem­ber tosses the de­coy fish to the an­i­mal.

The sea lion will usu­ally di­vert to the eas­ier meal, ig­nor­ing the hooked fish while it tears apart and eats the de­coy fish. This also keeps the sea lion oc­cu­pied at the sur­face and away from the depths be­cause the pin­nipeds can­not swal­low food while un­der­wa­ter.

Some sport fish­er­men crit­i­cize this prac­tice be­cause it strength­ens a sea lion’s ten­dency to hang around fish­ing boats for food, but tell that to an an­gler who has just hooked a 50-pound white seabass and needs to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to land the fish of a life­time. By the way, the de­coy fish counts against your daily bag limit un­der Cal­i­for­nia Fish and Wildlife reg­u­la­tions, even though you fed it to a sea lion.


If your boat is not at an­chor, here’s a trick that can help re­trieve a fish from the jaws of a sea lion. Follow the sea lion with the boat while the an­gler main­tains steady pres­sure on the line. Make sure you stay right on top of the an­i­mal. The sea lion, be­ing a mam­mal, will even­tu­ally need to sur­face to breathe, and some­times it will re­lax its grip on the fish to take a breath. You need to be there when it hap­pens. Have a crewmem­ber stand­ing by with a gaff to stick the fish as soon as the sea lion sur­faces.

Be­ing fast with the gaff is im­por­tant when­ever sea li­ons are around. Many fish are taken by the an­i­mals right be­side the boat. Some of these pin­nipeds have learned to save the en­ergy of chas­ing a meal by hov­er­ing around the boat un­til you bring the fish in close, then they dart out and steal your prize. Gaff the fish as soon as it is within reach. Sec­onds count when sea li­ons are bent on snatch­ing your catch.

On the West Coast, out-of-balance pop­u­la­tions of ha­rass­ing sea li­ons will re­main a fact of life for many years to come. The best you can hope for is that great white sharks will thin the herd. In mean­time, time-tested tricks such as these can help you cope with prob­lem­atic pin­nipeds.


Field data in­di­cates that sea lion birth rates have risen on av­er­age 5.4 per­cent an­nu­ally since the mid-1970s, due largely to the fed­eral Marine Mam­mal Pro­tec­tion Act of 1972.

Some sea li­ons, such as this large male (known de­ri­sively by an­glers as a knot­head) in Ma­rina Cabo San Lu­cas, Mex­ico, have learned to rely on beg­ging for hand­outs from tourists for food.

Sea li­ons find easy pick­ings for salmon and steel­head at the base of Bon­neville Dam on the Columbia River where bot­tle­necks form as the fish mi­grate up­river.

Dan Car­lin was dragged un­der­wa­ter by a sea lion that sunk its teeth into his fish and his left hand. The wounds re­quired 20 stitches. Car­lin’s wife, Tr­ish, cap­tured the mo­ment that the an­i­mal struck.

Many sea li­ons in­habit off­shore is­lands (be­low left), but with few con­trols on pop­u­la­tion growth, a num­ber of them have ex­panded into har­bors where they haul out on docks and buoys (above left).

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