Angry fishermen in Monterey fume as sea lions descend |

Angry fishermen in Monterey fume as sea lions descend

TERENCE CHEA, Associated Press Writer

MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) — In recent weeks, hundreds of sea lions have transformed the Monterey Bay harbor into a raucous playground and temporary home. While tourists delight in the spectacle, local fishermen say the barking creatures are a menace that destroy their nets and eat what fish they don’t scare away.

On Saturday, sightseers gathered to gawk and snap photos as the giant marine mammals lounged in dense packs on the rocky shores, boats and docks of Monterey’s wharf.

“It’s about fishermen losing their business,” said Jean Mercurio, who began fishing in Monterey in 1950 after immigrating from North Africa. “We lose the catch. We lose the nets. How are we going to live?”

Protected by federal law, sea lions have long been a nuisance to California’s fishing industry, but their rapid population growth in recent years is stirring local fishermen to protest.

Researchers estimate the sea lion population has soared to nearly 300,000 along the California coast.

Earlier this month, an estimated 700 sea lions took over the wharf’s docks, disrupting fishing and boating and creating an overpowering stench. Many adults have since returned south for the breeding season, but hundreds of young have stayed.

Though sea lions always congregate around the wharf, not only is this year different because of the unusually crowded docks — fishermen say they are encountering even greater numbers at sea.

Monterey Bay has not hosted so many sea lions since 1997, the last year of strong El Nino ocean currents, which some marine researchers speculate may account for changes in habitat that send the creatures searching for new food sources.

In the past, fishermen used guns or firecrackers to kill or at least scare away sea lions that ventured too close to their nets.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 put an end to that. That federal law prohibits killing or harming sea lions, though dozens are found shot dead every year.

Fishermen believe sea lions are taking advantage of an unnatural situation to feast on their catch without consequences.

“They just eat our fish,” Mercurio said. “They can take all they want. And we can’t do nothing about it.”

The high number of sea lions has attracted tourists to Monterey, so local fishermen this week used the opportunity to stage formal protests. They want the federal government to loosen protections so they can kill animals that hurt their business.

Congress has avoided the thorny issue, which pits environmentalists against the fishing industry. Without a change of policy, fishermen such as Mercurio want the government to compensate them for their loss, perhaps by buying them out.

While fishermen see the sea lions as thieves and freeloaders, not everybody thinks the huge influx is a problem.

“This is a natural process for a federally protected animal,” said Sue Andrews, field manager in Monterey for the Marine Mammal Center, a Sausalito-based nonprofit. “It’s perfectly normal for them to go where they need to go.”

On a clear, sunny Saturday, tourists enjoyed the spectacle of hundreds of boisterous sea lions congregating at such close range.

“It gives people from the desert the opportunity to see something different,” said Mary Curtis, on vacation from Phoenix. “They don’t have this many at sea world.”