Coastal Commission approves permit for year-round seal rope

John Leek, secretary of the San Diego Council of Divers spoke in opposition to the year-round seal rope. Leek was one of many people on both sides of the issue who used video to drive home their point of view. Pat Sherman
John Leek, secretary of the San Diego Council of Divers spoke in opposition to the year-round seal rope. Leek was one of many people on both sides of the issue who used video to drive home their point of view. Pat Sherman
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John Leek, secretary of the San Diego Council of Divers, spoke in opposition to the year-round seal rope. Leek was one of many people on both sides of the issue who used video to drive home their point of view. Pat Sherman

By Pat Sherman

The California Coastal Commission has given its unanimous — albeit reluctant — backing to a year-round rope barrier separating humans and seals at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla.

At its meeting in Chula Vista council chambers on Wednesday, July 11, the commission voted to approve the City of San Diego’s request for a coastal development permit to install a year-round rope to keep humans a safe distance from seals. The approval is for for an initial three-year period with several stipulations, such as implementation of a program to monitor the rope’s efficacy and a clause that would indemnify the Coastal Commission from legal liability.

Despite acting on the recommendation of its staff to approve the rope permit, the commissioners conveyed little faith that it would solve what they view as the overarching problem — the decade-long acrimony at Children’s Pool between those who want the beach reserved for seals and those favoring greater human access to the shoreline, as there was before the seals formed a colony there in the early 1990s.

“I don’t know if there’s a person on this diocese who believes that a rope is a solution to this problem,” said commissioner William Burke. “I don’t know how the city can send this forward and say this is the best we can do. … It’s like an imaginary line. Why use a rope? Why not just draw a line in the sand?”

During public comment, people on both sides of the issue used video of Children’s Pool to drive home their points, which captured moments of bad behavior on both sides, including seal advocates’ use of bullhorns and intimidation to keep people away from seals, and divers and those favoring beach access repeatedly breaching the current rope barrier (which is up during the seals’ pupping season, from Dec. 15 to May 15).

“I like reality TV, so I enjoy watching you all fight,” Burke said. “The seals are going to be fine. It’s the people that have the problem.”

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Seal advocates gather as Dr. Jane Reldan of the La Jolla Friends of the Seals speaks with media prior to the Coastal Commission hearing. Close to 20 seal advocates ceded their time to Reldan to afford her more time for her presentation in support of the year-round rope.

The polarization Burke spoke of was evident during the meeting, as seal advocates and beach access advocates sat on opposite sides of the room, eyeing each other with circumspection.

“I’m really concerned that we have a monitoring program for harassment of the seals, but there’s no way for us to implement a monitoring program to look at the conditions of harassment of people on people," Commissioner Jana Zimmer said.

The commissioners also reserved a measure of reproach for city officials, which they said had not conducted a proper environmental analysis of the seal colony and the seawall built by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps in the 1930s. The commissioners said the wall created an unnatural environment that served as a welcome sanctuary for seals and trapped levels of bacteria from seal feces that make the beach unsafe for human use.

“I want to support a temporary rope to keep people away from the seals but I want to find a real solution, rather than an arbitrary one (because) some council people sat around and didn’t do the analysis,” said Commissioner Martha McClure of Crescent City, a coastal community in Northern California. “I’m stymied as to why there wasn’t a full environmental assessment made and alternatives presented. ... I live in a community that has lots of seal rookeries and their activity varies throughout the year. To have a permanent rope may not be necessary throughout the year.”

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