Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 232: Sea Lions of Lake Merced

An 1890s idea to catch invasive carp backfires.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jul 8, 2017

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 232: Sea Lions of Lake Merced Outside Lands Podcast Episode 232: Sea Lions of Lake Merced

(above) Seal Rock, circa 1890

Sea lions on rocks [Sea Lions, Seal Frock, Pacific Ocean, Near Cliff House] Probably by A.J. McDonald.

Podcast Transcription

WNP232 – Sea Lions of Lake Merced

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: David!

David: Yes, Woody?

Woody: Last week I said we were going to tell the story of lake-living pinnipeds.

David: That's right!

Woody: What does that mean?  Do you know what a pinniped is?

David: Do I know what a pinniped is? Yes, I do.

Woody: What is it?

David: Well, a pinniped is like a walrus or a sea lion or a seal or something like that. It's a mammal that has really small feet.

Woody: So, if we're talking about, or not feet at all, really, I guess they do have feet somewhere in there, vestigial feet. They have flippers.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Anyway, so what sort of seal or walrus would be living in a lake, is my question. And this is actually…

David: The Loch Ness Monster.

Woody: No, no. This is a crazy story. This is [00:01:00] such a crazy story, it's got its own podcast. I’m, we're going to talk about the sea lions that used to be at Lake Merced.

David: What!?

Woody: Yes.

David: What!?

Woody: As Andre would say, “What!?” This is crazy because you think of the sea lions that used to be at Seal Rocks, you know, over near the Cliff House.

David: Sure, or Pier 39, or wherever.

Woody: But Lake Merced is a freshwater lake. So, what's the deal with that? And let's just go back, back, back in time, David.

David: Yeah.

Woody: All the way to the 1890s.

David: That's pretty far back.

Woody: Yeah, that is pretty far back.

David: I mean, there's not much out there. We did do, didn't we do a podcast on Lake Merced about the 1850s though?

Woody: Yeah,

David: We did.

Woody: We talked about the earthquake out there. Remember that? But this is 1890s. The Spring Valley Water Company, which is a private company…

David: Right.

Woody: That has a contract with the City to provide municipal…

David: Drinking water.

Woody: Drinking water, yeah.

David: Drinking water!


Woody: And firefighting water and, just, water. Right? It was crazy time. Back when [00:02:00] we didn't have a municipal water department. We actually hired a company to do it.

David: I mean, we could talk about it. The Spring Valley Water Company was purchased by the City sometime in the ‘20s, I think, right?

Woody: Yeah, ‘28. But back then we actually had a private company. Like PG&E giving us electricity, The Spring Valley Water gave us water. And they took some of the drinking water from the, most of it, from the Peninsula.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And they pumped it up to the City.

David: Right. They had, they have a couple of reservoirs up in the watershed there.

Woody: But they would mix it, at that point, with water from Lake Merced.

David: Oh, okay.

Woody: Yeah. So, we actually got our drinking water, some of it, from Lake Merced at the time.

David: So, I got a question, was there any water treatment going on at all?

Woody: I'll tell you what water treatment was. They had the little pipe that the pumps sucked the water out of Lake Merced from, they put a little wooden shed over it because that way the sun wouldn't hit the water and create a lot of algae.

David: [00:03:00] That's it?

Woody: That was it.

David: Was there a filter? Or there was…

Woody: There might have been somewhere up near the reservoir, but not really.

David: There was, was there a grate over it so a fish doesn't pop up out of your toilet?

Woody: Maybe, but this is the issue. So, here's one story I heard. One story I heard is they actually had some algae problems in the lake.

David: Oh, okay.

Woody: Right? They'd kind of cut it off from the ocean. And there used to be a little connection to the ocean up in the, near the Zoo area. But they cut that off and there was some algae growing in there. And the other thing is they had farms that they leased around the lake and some of the runoff from the farms got into the lake, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, they were worried about a little of that stuff. But, so one story I heard is to fight the algae problem, they brought in carp.

David: Carp.

Woody: To eat the algae.

David: Like goldfish, like they dumped their goldfish in the…

Woody: Yeah, and the crazy thing is the newspaper talked about this. They actually identified one person, which, who was quote, “A German named Poppay.”

David: Pop. [00:04:00]

Woody: Pop. This is what the Chronicle said, he brought carp eggs from Germany in the 1870s and started, like, a business in Sonoma selling carp eggs and telling people, put carp in your pond on your property and fish every day.

David: Grow your own carp for dinner. I mean, do they eat carp in Germany?

Woody: I don't know. But the idea was that it'd be like planting a garden in your backyard. It's like you just plant some carp and then have it for dinner. Right?

David: It's like in the back of the comic books when you would get Sea-Monkeys.

Woody: Right. But it turns out, nobody likes carp. So, millions of carp suddenly have infiltrated…

David: I've never heard of anybody eating carp, never seen it on the menu or anything, I mean.

Woody: So, you have carp in the Sacramento River, in the San Joaquin River and creeks. It's just a big, big carp mess. They're just like exploding everywhere.

David: I can imagine. I had been to some places where there was a lot of carp in like little ponds or something. And not the, not the, Japanese…

Woody: Not the Japanese Tea Garden.

David: Tea Garden, no. I mean, [00:05:00] we were actually in Japan, we saw some amazing, like, teeming ponds with carp in them. So many.

Woody: Right. Well, people didn't like carp it turned out. If they were going to have something they were going to fish for, or they wanted to eat, it would be like trout, or salmon, or bass, or anything but carp.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Because, I think because carp, and this is what they claimed it was, you know, it's a mud fish, right? It's like kind of on the bottom, a bottom feeder. And eats…

David: Burrowing around in the dirt.

Woody: Right. And so that doesn't taste real good. And this was a problem at Lake Merced because they had dumped some carp there either to eat the algae or somebody just dumped it for fishing. And suddenly you had all these carp burrowing in the muddy bottom.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And dirtying the water.

David: Churning the water up. It was an environmental disaster, Woody.

Woody: Well, it was actually a problem, I guess. They said that, you know, it was, Lake Merced is now in a constant state of muddiness and the water company despairs [00:06:00] of ever getting it clear again.

David: And I mean, and the native fish all died off too.

Woody: Yeah, they pretty much… It was all carp at that point, almost. And then, so then they say, what are we going to do? So, they try to catch it, the carp, with nets. Which failed. Then they said, how about we dynamite all the carp?

David: Yeah. They could dynamite the lake and then all the carp would float to the surface and create a nice fishy drinking water.

Woody: Right! Cause you have a bunch of dead carp suddenly that are floating around. You don't want that in your water either.

David: No, they, they, they put the kibosh on that idea too.

Woody: Right. So, what are you going to do next, David? What's your next idea, obviously?

David: I think a guy named Jerome A. Hart came up with the idea of bringing sea lions into Lake Merced to eat the carp.

Woody: Doesn't this sound like an Aesop Fable or something?

David: It's crazy.

David: And so then [00:07:00] they say that it's like Italian fishermen would catch the sea lions and they would sell them to Spring Valley Water Company where they would be dumped into the Lake.

Woody: Right. So, this is like: I have an algae problem. I'll get some carp to get rid of the algae. I have a carp problem. I'll get some sea lions to get rid of the carp. I mean, at some point you end up with, I don't know…

David: We're going to get some great white sharks to get rid of the sea lions.

Woody: Yeah, exactly. Or nuclear holocaust or something you have to go to. It's just, I don't know what. But, they actually… Now when I first heard this story, which I heard told third or fourth hand twenty years ago. I thought it was an urban myth. I said, “That sounds like one of those fables. I don't think they actually had sea lions at Lake Merced.” But they did.  So, they bring in these sea lions and they report that, I think one of the papers was saying, the lede of of their article, the first line says, “Fourteen sea lions are now swimming in our drinking water.”

David: Mmmmm!

Woody: And they said, even if it may seem unpleasant when you bring a cup, a [00:08:00] glass of water to your lips to imagine it being sea lion-ed. Think of the alternative. which is fourteen million carp.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, they were kind of all for the idea. So did the sea lions solve the problem, David?

David: I think they did not because, you know why, Woody?

Woody: Why?

David: Because carp don't taste good.

Woody: Even to sea lions?

David: So, they would go in… So apparently, the sea lions went and killed thousands of carp. But they would kill them only by taking one bite and chewing the. biting them in half, and then those two halves would float on the top of the lake.

Woody: They seem to only, like, take the bite that they thought was delicious. Which was probably the belly area or something. And they're like, “I'm not eating the rest of that.”

David: Yeah.

Woody: And they have tons of carp to choose from. So suddenly Spring Valley Water Company has a bunch of dead fish floating around the [00:09:00] lake, half chewed and on the beaches. And they have to actually hire men to go around to clean the fish carcasses off.

David: Right. So, the seagulls didn't take care of it.

Woody: Well, that's the other problem. Seagulls were attracted, of course, to all the half-eaten carp. And they're pooping in the Lake. So, you've got another problem now and you've got sea lions and seagulls fouling the lake with dead fish.

David: Come on! I mean some of this must have led to some sort of water treatment, some sort of filtration.

Woody: You're hoping!

David: Something.

Woody: So, the water's getting all putrefied. And, you know, the funny thing is the papers are not worried about the water quality so much. They're not really talking about it. They're talking about, how do we fight this carp problem, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, what would your next idea be, David? Do you bring in orcas?

David: Well, we have these invasive species that took over thelLake. Why not get another invasive species? And take over the lake again with something different that [00:10:00] tastes better? And that's what they did, right? They imported…

Woody: It's so stupid!

David: The muskellunge!

Woody: I know, let’s get another!

David: Which, I, we don't even know how to say “muskellunge.” But the musk… it's an Eastern fish typically called a “Muskie.”

Woody: From the pike family.

David: Yeah. It's a big predator fish, with big teeth and apparently those are good for fishing. At least good for sport fishing.

Woody: Right. So, the fishermen can have something exciting to catch and hopefully they're going to eat all the carp.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That's what they hope. So…

David: Right. I mean they, they had this idea…

Woody: There could be no problem. I cannot imagine any problem. This is going to work out perfectly.

David: But this fish is only in the East. So, they had to import the fish eggs from the East coast by train.

Woody: From New York state.

David: New York City.

Woody: New York state. But they, what they had to do, at first they couldn't get any eggs. They were like, “Oh, they're hard to find. We can't secure [00:11:00] any muskie eggs.” But somebody had this idea that this is the fierce enemy of the carp, and it'll, it's very, it's going to eat all the carp. So, they, after, I think a year or two, they got the eggs. And you said they brought them on a train?

David: Yeah.

Woody: The United States Fish Commission, which I didn't know we had one.

David: Yeah.

Woody: In May 1893, sends a hundred thousand little, tiny muskies in cans, I think.

David: In water.

Woody: Yeah.

David: The fry they call it, right?

Woody: Yeah little, tiny fish.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And they put them in like these giant cans on a train car. And it takes eight days to bring these hundred thousand fish. They only lose about seven percent of the little ones.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And there's a big article about it. And they have to bring the train down to like Oceanview and then they bring the muskies on wagons to the lake and they dump them in.

David: They just dump them in.

Woody: So that’s…

David: Lucky the carp didn't eat the tiny fish.

Woody: Well, the carp fish they eat vegetation. [00:12:00]

David: Oh, all right.

Woody: Right? Which…

David: I would think carp will eat just about anything.

Woody: That's probably true. But they were saying that they thought that the carp had enough stuff they wouldn't eat these. And there were so many of them. And the muskies would grow up and they would eat the carp.

David: Yeah. And…

Woody: What could go wrong? I just can't imagine.

David: Two years later…

Woody: 1895…

David: They did!

Woody: The carp are gone. The carp are gone.

David: Yeah. But the muskies are gone too.

Woody: Yep. All the sea lions ate them.

David: The sea lions like the muskies, I guess.

Woody: They did.

David: Oh, my goodness.

Woody: Apparently. And at this point, they stopped worrying about the carp and the muskies and the sea lions because Adolf Sutro is mayor at that point, and he's worried that the water quality, finally, somebody is worried about the water quality, is bad and they have all these investigators come out and test it. Mostly because there's hog farms in Daly City.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And the refuse from the hog farms is flowing into the southern part of the lake. [00:13:00] And, and I think Sutro even says at some meeting, like, how can the water be good? There are dead pigs in streams that are feeding this thing.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And so, he railed against that and they actually, I had read somewhere, they actually tried to drain the lake at one point. But the sea lions were supposedly, in 1895, still living at the lake. Happy and fat.

David: The same sea lions?

Woody: I don't know if they're the same sea lions. They were happy and fat in 1895. Laughing. Laughing like sea lions do, at the efforts to get rid of them.

David: [making sea lion barking sounds]

Woody: No fish, just sea lions.

David: Well.

Woody: But we don't know the story of how the sea lions disappear. I think it might have been during the cleanup of the lake after that. And then they just periodically over the decades, they would stock the lake with different fish like bass and trout and I don't know what's living in there now. Probably carp again.

David: But, I mean, there was no stream connecting. There was still at one time a little…

Woody: Underground [00:14:00] but not, not really.

David: There's nothing above ground that could get the sea lions back to…

Woody: No. They could probably crawl across the dunes.

David: Because I thought I read one story where it's like the sea lion made his way, escaped the lake, and made his way back to the ocean.

Woody: It wouldn't be that far. They'd have to kind of walk over the dunes there to get to the ocean. It's not very far, but, but that's the story of sea lions. And I didn't even know sea lions could swim in freshwater. You know, I'm a little curious about that. But whatever. That's the story that apparently was true about the sea lions at Lake Merced and I thought we should share it on the podcast.

David: Well, I'm glad you did.

Woody: I'm glad we were here to share this with the world.

David: I learned something.

Woody: And now, and it's funny, now they're worried because they've started introducing groundwater to our drinking water.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That's the plan. Mixing the Hetch Hetchy water with groundwater. Which is the same groundwater that feeds Lake Merced. And everybody's like…

David: Eww!

Woody: I know, and everybody's like, “Oh! Ooh, it's going to be so gross.” You know, but we don't have sea [00:15:00] lions and dead carp floating there.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Anyway, that's the story. And now, it's time for listener mail.

David: We don't have any listener mail, Woody.

Woody: What!?

David: Sorry.

Woody: After last week? And we made our plea?

David: Nope, nothing.

Woody: Fine, fine. Don't send us an email. I don't care.

David: There's going to be… We're going to have mail someday again, but not today.

Woody: I know, well, at least we have iTunes reviews, right?

David: Nope. We have no iTunes reviews.

Woody: All right people, now you have to pay. You have to pay if you want to be on here. So, we're going to have Shoutouts. For $50, $50, rather. You go to our website at outsidelands.org/podcast. Put in your hundred-word message. We'll read it on the air for $50. Is that better than free listener mail that we were reading before?

David: Yes.

Woody: I don't think so.

David: No.

Woody: But do it!

David: All right, I'll do it right now.

Woody: Okay.

David: I'll read it right now: we have no Shoutout.

Woody: Ahhhh! Fine! It's time for [00:16:00] events.

David: We have no events.

Woody: No, no. Come on, come on now. I know we've got events. I know we've got events.

David: Okay, we do have events and if you want to know what all of our events are, you can go to outsidelands.org/events.php. Just click on the events link on any page.

Woody: That's easiest.

David: Like, that's easiest. But, yes, we have on July 20th, which is a Thursday evening, we have OpenSFHistory - Haight Ashbury and Cole Valley. Woody, have we annexed the Haight Ashbury to the west side of the City? We did our Summer of Love walks in the Spring, and now we're doing this Haight Ashbury Cole Valley, OpenSFHistory event at The Bindery, which is right on Haight Street. It's a new venue. It's between Cole and Shrader, I think. But are we, are we now the historians of the historic Haight Ashbury?  [00:17:00]

Woody: Yes.

David: Oh. You heard it here first folks!

Woody: It's like Risk, we're just taking over. No, you know, we, with OpenSFHistory, we have photos all over the City, so we're trying to do events all over the City.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Although I think there could be a little bit more of effort by somebody else to take interest in the history of the Haight.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And have a little group out there so we don't have to do it.

David: We'd help.

Woody: But yeah, we're happy to help.

David: But, so, you're telling me that despite not really covering the Haight Ashbury, we are going to go in and do a talk on the Haight Ashbury?

Woody: We're going to show pictures, we're going to have different people talk. If you have a story about the Haight you'd like to share, we'll give you one minute to say it that night.

David: You can say a lot in a minute.

Woody: Yeah, and if you want to buy tickets, I think you should because it will sell out. Like everything we do, go to the website, go to the events link and buy your ticket.

David: Yep.

Woody: It'll be fun.

David: Yep, we also [00:18:00] have a couple more of the Lake Merced history walks.

Woody: Those are free.

David: You did… Those are free. You did a couple in prior months. You've got a couple more in July and a couple more in August. You're pretty much just repeating. There's two walks and you repeat them.

Woody: Yeah.

David: So, you get, folks, you get a couple of chances at these. And these are really good. I mean, the first ones were very well received, and people really enjoyed it.

Woody: Yeah, we do, I can't do the whole lake it's so big. So, we do one on the South side and one on the North side, and the content kind of crosses over, but you see different things obviously.

David: We do ask you to make a reservation though, so go to the website, and contact us and we'll put your name down.

Woody: Yeah, that'd be nice. But, if you don't, you can still come on the walk. And also: there will be no sea lions.

David: No.

Woody: And then on August 5th, I don't even know, this might have already filled up, but that Adolf Sutro event at the Sutro Library. OpenSFHistory, Adolph Sutro.

David: Right, San Francisco State.

Woody: Yeah, that's August 5th on a Saturday afternoon. It's [00:19:00] tight and free of charge, but you got to make your reservation.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, if you haven't done it, try to do it. Events page, again.

David: Yeah. And if you haven't been to the Sutro Library, you should definitely go in there. I think we did a podcast on it a while back.

Woody: It's, it's nice.

David: It's a nice spot.

Woody: So, David, what else, what else in the whole wide world could somebody do on our vast website? Vast.

David: Yes. Well, the most important thing they can do…

Woody: Vast.

David: Is help our mission of preserving and sharing the stories of the west side of San Francisco. And the way you do that is by becoming a member of Western Neighborhoods Project.

Woody: That seems simple enough.

David: Yeah. So, click on the “Become a Member” link, put in your information. Send us a, likely, tax-deductible donation.  Hey, you know what else?

Woody: What?

David: I think some of our listeners, at least a couple, are employed.

Woody: No [00:20:00] way!

David: Yeah.

Woody: They're all retired…

David: So, listen, if you have a job…

Woody: On fixed incomes.

David: If you have a job, then you should definitely become a member.

Woody: Yeah, why not?

David: If you have a job at a large company that does these…

Woody: Matching programs.

David: Matching programs.

Woody: I like the way you're thinking.

David: Then sign up and let them know that you're donating and double that donation…

Woody: Do they get a tote bag?

David: With your employer.

Woody: Do they get a tote bag?

David: No, we don't, you don't get a tote bag.

Woody: Fine.

David: You can have a button. We have some “WNP Loves You” buttons.

Woody: So, we'll give one of those out if they ask?

David: Yeah, if they ask.

Woody: All right. David, I have a preview for next week.

David: Lay it on me baby.

Woody: This is our subject next week: We're going to keep on fishing. Because I didn't get enough about muskies and carp.

David: I thought there was not… I didn't realize there were so many fishing stories.

Woody: Oh, I got many, many fishing stories. Next week.

David: All [00:21:00] right, I'll be here.

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Woody: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history, go to outsidelands.org.

On the Map (click marker for larger map)
More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 151: OpenSFHistory

    Making private collections public, the new WNP program offers up thousands historical San Francisco images. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Dec 13, 2015)
  • Podcast # 414: Tales of Ocean Beach

    Ocean Beach in the 60s & 70s was a time like no other. Special guest, and native West-sider, Paul Judge joins co-host John Martini to regale us with their first-hand recollections of the places, people, and events of the beach, Playland, and environs. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jan 23, 2021)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History