The Coastal Post - October, 1996

Attack Of The Harbor Seals?

BY JOSH CHURCHMAN

At a recent meeting concerning the Bolinas lagoon, there was serious talk about the frequent disturbance of the seals in the lagoon, and some talk of giving park and open space rangers the power to write citations to anyone who disturbs a seal. The suggested amount: $1,000! Imagine if your child was playing on Kent Island and disturbed a seal—it could cost you a grand.

Twenty years ago there were only 30 harbor seals living in the lagoon area. The Bolinas lagoon is now the home of more than 200 seals. At the current rate of growth (17% a year) there could be over a 1000 seals in eight years. It seems like over-population is a bigger problem than harassment of the seals. Harbor seals are lucky. They are one of very few lagoon inhabitants whose population is on the rise.

The seals population boom is not an accident; it is from a huge effort by a small group of people to protect all marine mammals. The program has worked so well that some populations, like the California sea lion, have increased to record numbers and are creating new problems.

In the big picture, where everything is interconnected, there is a balance. Nobody know where humans fit in this balance, but I do see how the harbor seal fits in the balance of the Bolinas Lagoon. You cannot have one species thrive without another suffering. In this case, it is the fish that suffer. Some local residents are working on trying to bring back a steelhead and silver salmon run to the streams that feed Bolinas lagoon, but the project is doomed at the start because the fish will never make it past the pack of seals in the every-shrinking channels of the lagoon. Ten years ago there were numerous striped bass in the lagoon channel, but I fear they too are gone forever. This is how life works—some make it and some don't, but the deck is rigged in this case. Is this the outcome we wanted?

There are strict laws protecting all marine mammals and they come with steep fines. At the present time the local rangers do not write citations. There are people who record every time a boat, dog, or person comes close to the seals and call in their report to the rangers. Soon there will be enough of these reports to justify more rangers and to give them citation powers. With the maximum fine being one hundred thousands dollars for any harassment of a marine mammal, this could get serious! This is not speculation on my part, this is all very real. Once again I ask, is this what we want? More rangers with more powers writing more citations, all because we have an over-populated seal colony in the lagoon? Perhaps this will become yet another revenue source for county agencies.

It is not only the seals that are protected these days—their only remaining predator is also protected. The Great White shark has been protected for four years, and basic biology says that if a food source increases, the predators will increase right along with them. It would be a sad day when it was too dangerous to swim or surf here because we let the balance slip.

How do we "manage" the seal population? In Washington state, they took all the troublesome sea lions and trucked them away to where they would be no trouble at all: to California.

If there was more water in the lagoon, and we could keep the rangers in an educational state of mind rather than just writing tickets, there would be a solution to our problem. But if it takes 10 years to decide to help the lagoon, and the channels get smaller, the result could be tragic. In the end, if we do nothing, this problem will go away all by itself, because the lagoon will close off and there will be no seals or fish to worry about.