A look back at the sad or­deal ele­phant seals faced in past

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY DAVID MIDDLECAMP dmid­dle­[email protected]­bune­news.com

Ele­phant seals have been a tourist at­trac­tion since the 1990s.

But they were once val­ued for an­other rea­son.

An ar­ti­cle pub­lished in the Daily Evening Tri­bune on Jan. 10, 1884, talks about a south­ern hemi­sphere hunt on South Ge­or­gia Is­land be­tween Ar­gentina and Antarctica. Whal­ing ships were sent to slaugh­ter the pin­nipeds for oil and hides.

“How many ele­phant-seals were slaugh­tered by the crew of the ‘Mary Ann’ is not known,” the ar­ti­cle reads, “but it is recorded that within twenty-five years of her visit to Ge­or­gia Is­land, there were killed on that is­land alone over 1 mil­lion 2 hun­dred thou­sand an­i­mals, or about one thou­sand ev­ery day dur­ing the sea­son.”

The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram said in a Nov. 15, 1913, ar­ti­cle that “the last herd of sea ele­phants known to ex­ist is to be found at Guadalupe is­land, off the west coast of Mex­ico. The herd there are now only about 30 spec­i­mens.”

The seals and whales sur­vived when kerosene re­placed seal and whale oil as a fuel source. That, in turn, was re­placed by gas jets and elec­tric light­ing.

Ele­phant seals be­gan re­turn­ing to the Cen­tral Coast of Cal­i­for­nia in 1990. Enough seals had spilled over from the Piedras Blan­cas rook­ery near San Simeon by 1994 that a tourist was bit­ten af­ter teas­ing an an­i­mal.

Adult male ele­phant seals can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, mak­ing a hu­man the un­der­dog in hand-to-flip­per com­bat.

By 1996, a few ele­phant seals were try­ing to cross High­way 1 and get­ting in­jured in col­li­sions.

Vol­un­teers with non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Friends of the Ele­phant Seal have been ed­u­cat­ing lo­cals and trav­el­ers for more than two decades.

But when Coleen Bondy wrote this story, pub­lished in the Telegram-Tri­bune on April 11, 1996, the seals still needed friends:

RE­TURN OF SEALS RAISES NEW PROB­LEMS

The tri­umphant re­cov­ery of the north­ern ele­phant seal from the brink of ex­tinc­tion should be cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

In­stead, it’s got em­ploy­ees from about a half­dozen pub­lic agen­cies scram­bling to find a way to man­age their quickly ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion.

When the state Coastal Com­mis­sion ap­proved a con­tro­ver­sial re­align­ment for a dan­ger­ous, curvy stretch of High­way 1 north of Piedras Blan­cas on Thurs­day, a grow­ing herd of ele­phant seals along the coast be­came a ma­jor fo­cus of the de­bate.

Beach users are afraid they might even­tu­ally lose an ac­cess point just ap­proved for the beach at Twin Creeks south of the Piedras Blan­cas light­house be­cause of the seals.

Of­fi­cials had barely be­gun deal­ing with prob­lems cre­ated by the ele­phant seals on the beach near the Piedras Blan­cas light­house when the seals spread south­ward to the beach at Twin Creeks.

Irma Lago­marsino, a fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist with the Na­tional Ma­rine Fish­eries Ser­vice in Los An­ge­les, said of­fi­cials don’t have a so­lu­tion.

“It is an emerg­ing prob­lem that we don’t have an an­swer for yet,” she said. “We’re try­ing to wrack our brains to fig­ure that out.”

The fish­eries agency is charged with en­forc­ing the Ma­rine Mam­mals Pro­tec­tion Act. In the past, it has focused on en­forc­ing laws to en­sure that ma­rine mam­mal pop­u­la­tions con­tin­ued to grow.

“The act does not deal very well with how you man­age them once they get back to a healthy sta­tus,” she said. “I don’t think it an­tic­i­pated these kinds of con­flicts.”

The high­way re­align­ment pro­ject ap­proved by the Coastal Com­mis­sion re­quires cre­ation of a long-term management plan for the ele­phant seals at Twin Creeks.

Cal­trans, the fish­eries ser­vice, San Luis Obispo County, the Na­tional Bi­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, the Cal­i­for­nia Re­sources Agency, the Coastal Com­mis­sion and pos­si­bly sev­eral other gov­ern­ment agen­cies will all have a hand in pre­par­ing the management plan.

Even the steer­ing com­mit­tee for the Mon­terey Bay Na­tional Ma­rine Sanc­tu­ary plans to talk about the seals at Piedras Blan­cas at an up­com­ing meet­ing, Lago­marsino said.

The seals now num­ber about 2,000 in the Piedras Blan­cas area.

“Hu­mans want to use the beach, and so do seals,” she said. “I think we’d be very hard-pressed to kick the seals off the beach.”

Some steps have al­ready been taken to deal with the seals. Signs have been posted at beaches where the seals hang out warn­ing the pu­bic that it is il­le­gal to ha­rass them. Fences and con­crete bar­ri­ers have been in­stalled to keep way­ward seals — and there have been a few — off the high­way.

But no one is pro­tect­ing the seals from the pu­bic, or the pub­lic from it­self.

There have been re­ports of peo­ple put­ting their chil­dren on the seals’ backs, throw­ing rocks at them, and touch­ing them. At least one per­son has been bit­ten by a seal.

“Some­one’s go­ing to get re­ally se­ri­ously in­jured,” Lago­marsino said.

The agency can’t af­ford to have an en­force­ment of­fi­cer in the area ev­ery day, how­ever.

Ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams might work with lo­cal res­i­dents, but they don’t seem to be very ef­fec­tive with tourists, she added.

“It’s great to go see them. I think it is, too. But you’ve got to use com­mon sense,” Lago­marsino said.

Lee Ot­ter, a staff mem­ber with the state Coastal Com­mis­sion, said he’d like to see a do­cent-led pro­gram sim­i­lar to the one at Ano Nuevo State Park in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“When prop­erly man­aged, you can have both pu­bic ac­cess and pro­tect the seals,” he added.

County Su­per­vi­sor Bud Lau­rent agrees.

He would like to see vol­un­teer do­cents give tours at the beach, and make sure the pub­lic is stay­ing a safe dis­tance away from the seals, as part of the management plan.

“No fed­eral agency has stepped for­ward to do a damn thing for them,” said Lau­rent.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP dmid­dle­[email protected]­bune­news.com

A mother seal barks near her pup. Ele­phant seals were be­com­ing a tourist at­trac­tion in 1996. One seal pup was born on the beach at Piedras Blan­cas in 1992 and more than 5,800 were born in the 2018 sea­son.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP dmid­dle­[email protected]­bune­news.com

The Deo fam­ily from Long Beach takes a snap­shot above the Piedras Blan­cas beach in 1996, when ele­phant seals were be­com­ing a tourist at­trac­tion. One seal pup was born on the beach at Piedras Blan­cas in 1992, while more than 5,800 were born in the 2018 sea­son.

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