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Captain’s Log: Sleuthing the Disappearance of Sea Lions

See if you can solve the mystery of the Santa Cruz Island critters

Wanna try to sleuth a mystery? Here is some pertinent information and a tantalizing handful of clues. Let’s see if you can come up with the answer before I provide it at the end of the column — no fair peeking early!

Capt. David Bacon
Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)

A midweek charter to the stunningly gorgeous west end of Santa Cruz Island was a dream trip — flat, glassy water with no wind, comfortable shirtsleeve weather and hungry fish. We enjoyed a productive day of boiler rock fishing, working my charter boat, WaveWalker, slowly along and around cliffs and boiler rocks where swells surged to create whitewater.

Hungry fish forage for food dislodged from the rocks by the turbulent water. We made hundreds of casts to water right at the edges of rocks and cliffs. It is a delightful way to fish, and the fish were hungry.

When we first arrived, I observed that those boiler rocks looked barren and abandoned by the usual throngs of California sea lions that haul out and sun themselves while engaging in the more casual aspects of sea lion social life. Less than a tenth of the customary thousands of sea lions were present.

They are a totally unmanaged species, and during the past couple of years I have observed many hundreds of very young sea lions along nearly every mile of island coast line. To my experienced eye, it looked like a recipe for disaster. A blip in the food chain could quickly become the death of a thousand young critters. That’s the danger when we try to carefully manage parts of the food chain and ignore others because they are too cute to “manage.”

I kept observing as we fished. I could see signs of change — much less kelp than usual in the noticeably clear water column almost everywhere we fished. The fish we were bringing up were eating crabs, brittlestars and other bottom dwellers. While we found plenty of structure-oriented home-guard fish such as calico bass and shallow water rockfish, we encountered no pelagic opportunistic predators such as white seabass or halibut. Those far-ranging foragers don’t like to eat crabs.

I knew from my pre-trip online research that water temps were in the low 50s (we haven’t felt the warmer-water effects of El Niño yet this far north) and the chlorophyll ranking was fairly high, but neither of those pieces of information solved the mystery for me.

Could it be that the Landlord (great white shark) was foraging through the area and frightened the sea lions away? No, there are far too many sea lions for the number of great whites we have in our area. So sea lions feel somewhat safe in their numbers. With the sea lions gone, I pretty much know that the Landlord is away as well, in a more target-rich environment — probably wherever all of those sea lions went.

And there you have the most important clue. The Landlord went off in search of its food of choice, and so did the sea lions. What forced the sea lions to leave, in my experienced opinion, was a lack of natural forage food such as anchovies, sardines and mackerel.

I kept a sharp eye on my fishfinder all day, and I didn’t see the usual baitballs (schools of ‘chovies and ‘dines and small mackerel). Starvation forced the sea lions to brave the perils of travel and multiply the overpopulation problem in other areas in search of sustenance.

Will the forage fish return to the west end of fabled Santa Cruz Island, and will the sea lions that survive come back, too? Yes, they will — in the fullness of natural cycles we are still striving to understand.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help.

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