Deterring "Nuisance" Pinnipeds
Potential deterrence of Pacific harbor seals, northern elephant seals, California sea lions, northern fur seals, and the Eastern U.S. stock Steller sea lions (collectively known as pinnipeds) from fishing gear and catch, and private property. Updated October 2018.
Since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, populations of California sea lions, Northern elephant seals, Northern fur seals, and Pacific harbor seals have increased dramatically, and are now considered healthy and robust. The eastern distinct population segment (DPS) of Steller sea lions have also recovered to the point where they have now been removed from the list of threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The increased abundance has been accompanied by a growing number of interactions with humans, raising concerns by private citizens and government officials who are seeking ways to protect property, fishing gear, and catch from damage by sea lions and seals.
The MMPA generally prohibits the harassment, hunting, capturing, or killing of marine mammals, or any attempt to engage in such activities. However, the law does contain exceptions authorizing certain people under certain circumstances to deter marine mammals from damaging private property, including fishing gear and catch, so long as the methods used do not result in the death or serious injury of an animal. To reduce the risk of causing "serious injury" to an animal, deterrence methods should be chosen that avoid penetration or tearing of skin, or rupture of an eye, and blunt force trauma that could cause broken bones or internal injuries.
WCR Deterrent Guidance (PDF, 2 pages)
NOAA Fisheries is developing formal guidelines and regulations for safely and legally deterring marine mammals. That guidance is not yet available, so in the interim, the agency is providing this advice for deterring Pacific harbor seals, Northern elephant seals, Northern fur seals, California sea lions, and eastern U.S. stock Steller sea lions.
Potential Deterrence Methods (PDF, 1 page)
There is no single non-lethal deterrence method known to be universally effective in discouraging pinnipeds from engaging in problem behaviors. Nevertheless, these methods and techniques have been found useful, in some circumstances, for deterring nuisance animals that are damaging property, fishing gear, or catch. Note: Some of the methods listed (such as loud noise or pyrotechnics) may not be appropriate for use in some areas, or are subject to prohibition under federal, state or local ordinances. The presence of ESA-listed species (marine mammals, sea turtles, or fish) in some areas may warrant inhibiting the use of certain methods. Please consult with local authorities to determine if such prohibitions exist in your area or if ESA-listed species may be encountered.
Only marine mammals that are not listed under the ESA may be deterred to protect private property, including fishing gear and catch (read more). Non-ESA-listed species of sea lions and seals that occur in coastal and inland waterways of California, Oregon, and Washington are Pacific harbor seals, northern elephant seals, northern fur seals, California sea lions, and the eastern U.S. stock of Steller sea lions, which were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species under the ESA in December 2013. An ESA- listed marine mammal may only be deterred if it is endangering personal safety.
When to Deter
The MMPA does not allow private citizens to deter marine mammals from undeveloped property (e.g., a beach) or public property (e.g., a breakwater). Private citizens may deter non-ESA-listed seals and sea lions that are exhibiting problem behavior resulting in, or that could result in, damage to private property, fishing gear or catch, or are endangering personal safety.
Additional Authority for Government Officials
The MMPA and ESA provide authority to city, county, state, and federal government officials or their employees to deter “nuisance” marine mammals to prevent damage to public property or to protect the public from potential threats by a nuisance animal.
Serious Injury or Mortality – The MMPA authorizes deterrence using non-lethal methods only. Deterrence cannot result in the death or serious injury of marine mammals. NOAA Fisheries has defined "serious injury" in regulations to include an injury that is more likely than not to lead to the death of the affected marine mammal.
Violation of Federal or State Laws or Local Ordinances – The use of some deterrence methods may be prohibited or restricted by federal, state or local governments. For example, a city or county may prohibit the use of, or require special permits for, pyrotechnics. It is your responsibility to check with appropriate authorities to ensure that any deterrence methods used comply with local, state and federal laws.
Risk to Human Safety – Some of these techniques may cause injury to you and/or other people. If you deter a seal or sea lion in such a manner that you cause injury to another person, you may be liable for your actions.
Taking of Non-Target Marine Mammals – Deterrence is not authorized if it will result in the death, serious injury, or harassment of non-target marine mammals (i.e., individuals other than those causing damage to private property, gear or catch).
Certain private citizens, marina owners, government officials, and commercial and recreational fishermen may deter Pacific harbor seals, Northern elephant seals, Northern fur seals, California sea lions and eastern stock of Steller sea lions under certain circumstances as described below:
Private Property Owner – Only the owner of the private property (e.g., a dock or vessel) may deter seals and sea lions to prevent damage to their private property.
Marina Owner – Only the marina owner, or an employee of the owner, or an agent or bailee of the owner may deter seals and sea lions to prevent damage to the marina.
Government Officials – City, county, state, or federal officials or their employees may deter listed and non-ESA-listed sea lions and seals to prevent damage to private or public property, or to protect the public from potential threats.
Commercial and Recreational Fishermen – Fishermen can deter seals and sea lions from damaging gear or depredating catch, only if they are actively fishing.
Any person may deter a nuisance animal from endangering personal safety.
Share the Shore (PDF, 2 pages)
Pinniped Entanglements Q & A (PDF, 2 pages)
Pinniped Branding on the West Coast Q & A (PDF, 2 pages)