La Jolla Cove Stench: City to reveal fence removal decision Nov. 15 in effort to thin sea lion colony

La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director, Sheila Fortune, and George's at the Cove owner, George Hauer, view a sea lion colony at La Jolla Cove that city officials say has caused the stench to return to the Village in full force. "What we have now is a health menace," Hauer said. Pat Sherman photos

By Pat Sherman

Merchants and residents fed up with the embarrassing stench that returned to La Jolla Cove in recent months met with government officials last week, at which time they were told that the public is free to jump the fence above the Cove and walk down onto the cliffs — a favored community solution to eliminate defecating birds and sea lions (and their smelly waste) from La Jolla Cove.

Mark Dibella, managing director for La Valencia Hotel said that by deterring people from walking on the rocks, the fence has created a safe haven for marine mammals and birds to colonize.

“Hence, (we go) back to a question we’ve had for a year-and-a-half,” Dibella said. “Is the fence legally required to be there? They literally said during that entire meeting, ‘Anybody can hop the fence — we wouldn’t stop you.’ ”

So that’s just what George’s at the Cove owner George Hauer did on Friday, Nov. 1, and again on Nov. 6.

Hauer, who started an online petition last year to spur city officials to address the Cove odor problem, is among a growing group of residents and business leaders — including Dibella and La Jolla Cove Suites owner Krista Baroudi — who are unified in their belief that removing the fence (or adding a gate to it) would diminish the presence of the birds and sea lions by providing public access to the bluff.

During Hauer’s first trek onto the cliffs, a local animal rights activist filmed him and sent the video to a local TV news station. On Nov. 6, when he walked onto the cliffs again, Hauer was asked by lifeguards to come up from the beach, and was questioned by three uniformed police officers.

“Why are we wasting police officers’ and lifeguards’ time because some old man walks down onto the bluffs?” Hauer asked. “The seal fanatics are driving all this … and that’s who the politicians are afraid of.”

San Diego Police Northern Division Lt. Tom Underwood said on Nov. 6 lifeguards were alerted to “a male that was out past the railing yelling and screaming at the sea lions, (adding that) some of the sea lions had flushed back into the ocean and some of the birds had flown away.”

Though neither lifeguards nor police witnessed Hauer yelling at sea lions, Underwood said officers informed him of a municipal code section pertaining to the harassment of wildlife.

“That was the section he was told he could potentially have been in violation of,” Underwood said. “It had nothing to do with him being out on the rocks. It had to do with his (alleged) behavior on the rocks.”

Lifeguard spokesperson Maurice Luque confirmed that lifeguards have not been instructed to keep people from walking on the rocks, “unless they’re putting themselves at risk because of breaking surf or high tide conditions … or if the lifeguards interpret their actions as being harassment of a (sea lion).”

Luque said lifeguards called police because they were concerned that a group of people monitoring Hauer could decide to retaliate against him.

Whether or not Hauer was at risk, he said both times his presence served to disperse the sea lions.

On Nov. 6 Mark Dibella, managing director of La Valencia Hotel, points across La Jolla Cove to rocks where children and adults search for little sea creatures, and where there were very few sea lions that day (compared with the area directly below the fence where people assume they may no longer tread). "I rest my case," Dibella said.

“It effectively cleared the entire area — all the (sea lions), everything — proving that if we open this to humans we can take care of the problem,” Hauer said, “When human beings go down there those animals are going to leave and they’ll find another place to (create) an open-air sewer.”

On Nov. 8, Stacey LoMedico, the city’s new assistant chief operating officer (formerly the director of park and recreation), issued a memo stating that city staff is conferring with the city’s risk management department and city attorney’s office to determine whether an opening and/or gate can be installed at the fence on Coast Boulevard, and will issue a formal answer on Nov. 15.

The memo, issued in response to concerns raised at the recent meeting with city officials, states, in part, that though there are no restrictions to people accessing the rocks/cliffs above La Jolla Cove, “access is discouraged as the area can be unstable due to the erosion of the cliffs/rocks” and that, according to city municipal code, “it is unlawful to take, kill, wound, disturb, or maltreat any bird or animal, either wild or domesticated, unless the same shall have been declared noxious by the city manager and a permit issued for the killing of such noxious animals.The memo adds that the Marine Mammal Protection Act also prevents people from harassing, disturbing, feeding or capturing sea lions or seals.

Though the first round of a two-part cleanup of bird excrement on the cliffs above La Jolla Cove seemed to eradicate the smell through summer, the stench returned — even after a second application of a microbial agent that digests bird guano was applied in September.

The city says the source of the smell is currently not waste from the winged cormorants, but excrement from an expanding sea lion colony (not the seals to the south at Children’s Pool) — a problem officials say could prove more difficult and time consuming to remedy than the bird guano.

Baroudi, of La Jolla Cove Suites, said she took a friend to George’s at the Cove for her birthday last week and was shocked by how intense the smell was.

Though Hauer, Dibella and Baroudi all agree that the first cove cleanup significantly reduced the smell during summer, Baroudi said the odor has gradually returned, and the second cove spraying provided no relief.

“We have numerous guest complaints on a regular basis; they show up in our trip reviews,” Baroudi said. “If the odor is bad and we’re giving a tour, we lose bookings.

“Just as La Valencia (which recently lost $6,000 in bookings when a guest arrived and canceled a suite and a block of rooms), we have seen people check in and check out because of the smell,” Baroudi said, adding that she and other employees at La Jolla Cove Suites routinely leave work with headaches from the stench.

La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director Sheila Fortune said she has developed respiratory problems since January, when the association moved into its Information Center on Prospect Street, directly above La Jolla Cove.

“What we have now is a health menace,” Hauer said. “All we’re asking the city to do is to take something down that they put up without any kind of community review.”

George Hauer, owner of George's at the Cove restaurant, says lifeguards and police confronted him when he walked onto the cliffs above La Jolla Cove this month. City officials say the public is legally permitted to tread there if they do not harass wildlife, although access has been blocked for at least a decade by a wood fence along Coast Boulevard.

Health concerns
Mark McPherson, chief of land and water quality for the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health, told La Jolla Light a posted health advisory at La Jolla Cove last month was due to the presence of Enterococcus bacteria, which he said was “relatively low, but above state standards.”

McPherson said it is difficult to tell what the source of the bacteria was. “It could have been birds; it could have been sea lions; it could have been a lot of things.”

“We haven’t seen any chronic conditions at La Jolla Cove due to sea lions,” McPherson added, though noting the county takes weekly samples at La Jolla Cove from April 1 through Oct. 31, but doesn’t test the water there during the winter due to state budget constraints.

“It’s not cheap to do water quality monitoring,” he said, pointing out that the county does take weekly tests during winter at 15 of the 40 beaches it monitors, including Torrey Pines river mouth and Swami’s and Moonlight beaches. McPherson said these are more frequently used during winter and viewed as having a higher likelihood of contamination.

“We always have the option to increase, decrease or change water sample (patterns) during winter months,” McPherson said. “If we thought public health was an issue we would definitely look at it (testing La Jolla Cove during winter).”

Proposed solutions
“We recognize that this is a significant problem and that something needs to be done,” said Alex Roth, a spokesperson for the office of Interim Mayor Todd Gloria. “We understand that very clearly. We understand that this is impacting the quality of life of La Jolla residents. We understand it’s hurting businesses there.”

Bill Harris, head of the city’s Transportation and Storm Water Department, said the city is looking at “anything and everything” to solve the problem, “within the bounds of what we’re allowed to do.” (Read more here.)

Those options include:
•  Treating the sea lion waste with the same microbial foam used to treat the bird guano (though city officials feel it is not a viable solution due the volume of sea lion waste and frequency with which it is deposited on the rocks);

•  Harassing the sea lions with amplified noise such as dogs barking (as allowed in certain circumstances under a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act);

• Using native plant species that produce a smell that repels sea lions.

Meanwhile, District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner is  “pushing hard” for the formation of a coastal management plan her office would spearhead to “help address the proliferation of sea lions, seals and birds,” and will make it a budget priority, said Jill Esterbrooks, her communications director

“We would be looking at best practices from other cities and municipalities up and down the California Coast who deal with the same issues,” Esterbrooks said. “We’re looking to see what they do, how they manage it.”

Baroudi said a solution had better come fast. After nearly two years of enduring a loss of business and nauseating condition, she said the town is at its “wits’ end.”

“Nobody’s going to sit by and let this continue any longer,” she said.

Related posts:

  1. Mayor declares first round of La Jolla Cove stench cleanup a success
  2. La Jolla Cove odors return after summer reprieve, city cites sea lions as the source
  3. La Jolla merchants’ group counters claim that Cove odor is gone
  4. UPDATED (Jan. 25): Webcam to monitor seals installed at La Jolla Children’s Pool
  5. Petition signatures spike as Cove stink reaches nauseating fever pitch throughout La Jolla Village

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Posted by Pat Sherman on Nov 9, 2013. Filed under Featured Story, La Jolla, News, Seal Watch. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Comments for “La Jolla Cove Stench: City to reveal fence removal decision Nov. 15 in effort to thin sea lion colony”

  1. JR

    Harassment is defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act as anything that changes the natural behavior of the animal…ie: chasing them into the water, etc. It’s illegal to be within 50 feet of them as well…seals, sea lions and sea birds live in and by the sea…they haul out to rest and warm up…if you don’t like marine life, you shouldn’t work or live by the sea…wondering who is going to be responsible when someone gets hurt walking on the rocks or bit by a frightened seal or sea lion…

    • Califia

      The truth isn’t in you Jane Reldan. Not only is it not illegal to be within 50 ft of marine mammals, the City can humanely move them off the bluffs any time they are a nuisance. They became a nuisance a long time ago but overlooked it for too long in pursuit of the almighty tourist dollars while the locals suffer. You know that all to well but insist on spreading your lies. Also, no one but the Feds can enforce the harassment of marine mammals. That’s another section of the Marine Mammal Protection Act you conveniently overlook. The City has no business enforcing Federal law or any local ordinance regarding seals/sea lions. That is the sole responsibility of the Federal government. (section 109a MMPA) The City should get out of the seal display business and stick to providing essential services to the taxpayer. Hopefully, our next mayor will not be bought off and perpetuate this mess. It’s time for San Diego officials to protect the health and safety of humans and return our beaches to the people of San Diego.

    • Mr. Bill

      Get your facts strait!
      There is no 50 foot set distance, law, ordinance, requirement, or code to stay away from a seal or sea lion, that is NOT defined in the MMPA, you have been brain washed by the incorrect signs and propaganda at Children’s Pool.
      Now if we were talking about whales and dolphins, that would be a different story.

      • JR

        Mr Bill
        Perhaps you should reread the entire MMPA…I haven’t been brainwashed by anything… the ocean is their home & they have every right to haul out on the rocks…as do the seabirds…

    • Kelley

      The Marine Mammal Protection Act is not in full effect. It shouldn’t matter what the difference is between Seals and Sea Lions. We as the human race are violating their home and intruding on a natural habitat. It may not seem like the humans who you let go through the gate are “harassing” the animals, but when the Sea Lions get so frightened that they all scurry to the edge of the cliffs and most are stumbling over each other, that to me, is a type of harassment. Especially when an animal is in its own habitat and can’t birth its babies in peace without a bunch of people up close and personal making them leave and once again “harassing” them by taking unnecessary pictures and taunting them by making loud obnoxious sounds. Is there no dignity left in this beautiful city or society?

      It is very disturbing and needs to stop. Those restaurant and business owners should have thought twice before starting a business in a location where Sea Lions have lived in this habitat for decades. Plain and simple. San Diegans and tourists come to see the Sea Lions, not just the seals, so by pushing them away, you are making them fight for their lives, not to mention taking away a huge tourist attraction in La Jolla.

      If they are so aggressive and may “bite humans” then why are we putting the general public and visitors in harms way? Not to mention children who don’t know any better and may end up wandering up to a male and getting bit. People must remember that these are wild animals! That may be a good point to address. If the whole fence was taken down, what would then happen to the Squirrel population? What about the “Unstable Cliffs?” Is that being overlooked as well? These are questions and concerns that need to be looked at further before jumping to a conclusion about taking down a fence that cost the City and Tax Payers a lot of money to install. I guarantee once a victim falls from the unstable cliffs or in fact gets bitten by a Sea Lion, there will be a new petition to put the fence back up, once again costing the tax payers their hard earned money and upsetting a whole different crowd of individuals.

      All in all, the Sea Lions have the right stay in their own environment. We need to lock the gate back up and think of a better solution to get rid of the smell. How about once a week, we put the funds toward hiring a few people or even volunteers to go down and clean up the mess. This would open up new positions for the unemployed, not to mention, clear the smell from the area. The Tax Payers can put their hard earned dollars toward a more environmentally safe approach. Lets keep these sea mammals around as long as possible!

  2. Cecillia B.

    Remove the sea lions. They will find another place to congregate and pup, just as they did for decades before we gave them the beach. People are surprised by the stench? When you formed a protected seal park in the center of town what did you expect would happen?

  3. GR

    The GREED of some people is unbelievable. I think it is safe to say people who chose to live in the mountain communities never complain about the bear, deer and other wildlife scat in their yards……They chose to live there. If you don’t like the sea life “smells” move away from the coast!

  4. JR

    Why not put an offshore haul out for them and they will vacate the rocks…and FYI…the beach isn’t yours or anyone else’s to “give them”…you don’t own the beach…they were here long before development…

  5. The La Jolla Village beach front has become a untreated sewage area. Home owners, in addition to having to endure the stench, now are facing the prospect of not being able to sell their expensive homes when they are finally fed up and want to relocate. Local businesses are losing money because no one wants to eat and shop where animals s*#t. I was born and raised in La Jolla in the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s and loved it and felt VERY priviledged. Today, I am VERY embarrassed to see what has become of this town. You couldn’t pay me to live there now. The politicians should be ashamed of themselves. You have allowed “The Jewel” to become a toxic waste dump. And you residents of La Jolla….you are sheep set up for the slaughter. Get some backbone (I could say cruder things) and take your community back from this awful situation. You let it happen. SHAME, SHAME, SHAME on you all as well!

  6. Greg

    I say change the laws so they can be harassed, it won’t hurt them, they’ll move, problem solved. laws shouldn’t enslave us, they should be for us.

  7. Tom Kemoob

    JR – I’ve spent more time up close and personal with harbor seals and sea lions than most people. I love the critters. They’ve nipped at my fins and I’ve pet them in the water. I watch sea lions do laps around me just out of arms reach as I swim. So I’m not going to move away because of this recent population explosion. And it is recent. Look at all the historical photos of the Cove, dating back to the 19th Century. There are no sea lions in any of them. 20 years ago, there was one bull and his harem hauling out between the Clam and Sunny Jim Cave. Now there are as many as 300 sea lions in the colony.

    Another thing – sea lions have no fear of humans. If the railing comes down and we’re allowed to walk along the cliffs, it will scare away the birds, which causes a lot of the stench. It may also spook a few sea lions. But if the sea lions want to haul out there, they will. I think it will take more than just opening the railing, but it will certainly help. Something has to be done, and spraying certainly isn’t the answer.

  8. How can we have a zoo without a zookeeper? No one would visit the famous SD zoo if they didn’t pay people to clean up what’s left behind by the animals (trash from humans/excrement from wild animals)? All sides need to be respected including the animals but humans should always be protected first. The real answer if quite simple and inexpensive. Live in harmony and don’t take advantage of each other. Now who is taking advantage of whom? I just returned from the airport where I returned two very good friends for out of state. We walked the Cove several time during their stay and each time is was really astonishing to see their reaction to the smell. It was so strong they said they could barely breath! Walking quickly to pass the area was the best solution (so much for enjoying the Cove). I wouldn’t think SD or La Jolla in this case needs to have a reputation for stench from animals or from politics. Please just use common sense. Find a solution (don’t spend a ton of money and time). Surely our great SD minds can do this.

  9. nonya

    I long for the way San Diego used to be…before the 1980s…before all the pompous people moved here.

  10. mark giffin

    The sea lions and the stench are secondary problems.
    The real problem is that it requires a complicated solution to fix even the simplest of problems anymore.

  11. Bill

    Remove the fence. Problem solved. Years ago there was no fence and no seal problem. We all swam in and around that area, jumping off the Clam, the Point, Bear Claw, the Pedestal, the Washing Machine, etc., and the seals never gathered on the rocks. (If these names do not ring a bell, you were not born and raised here.) The eco-terrorist carpetbaggers will be defeated.

    People, jump the fence and walk down the rocks until the seals swim away — it’s totally legal. If the City does not remove the fence, we will simply continue to jump it and walk down there.

  12. trace

    Move your profitable restaurant somewhere else! It is invaluable for children and grownups to be able to see nature so easily and so up close. Restaurants are everywhere. Sea Lions are not, and less so every year.

  13. swimmer

    1) The above people who state it is illegal to be within 50′ of a marine mammal are lying. Simple as that.
    2) The people stating that seals and sea lions are declining are lying as well.

    I’m sick of seing lying animal rights extremists bully visitors and citizens of San Diego alike. There is simply something fundamentally wrong with people who would rather see a human child drown than see a seal share a beach with said human, but that appears to be the thinking of these activists. It’s long past time the city said enough is enough and stood up to them. Support brave business owners like George!

  14. Zach

    Rich people must have a better sense of smell than me. I think it smells fine, afterall it is THE OCEAN. This has more to do with spoiled rich people not getting their way.

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