Future of Seal Cam monitoring at La Jolla Children's Pool in limbo

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Mayor Bob Filner addresses a crowd gathered above Children's Pool beach earlier this year heralding installation of the Seal Cam. File

By Pat Sherman

As the city prepares to demolish the old, condemned lifeguard tower at Children’s Pool beach, questions remain about the future of the Seal Cam mounted atop the old tower — particularly, who will be tasked with monitoring the streaming video used to file reports on the harbor seal colony there? And how much money will the city allocate for this service?

At the June 24 La Jolla Parks and Beaches meeting, Board Chair Dan Allen reported that in July the City of San Diego Park and Recreation department would assume operation of the Seal Cam at Children’s Pool beach, as stated in a monitoring plan issued by the city in May.

The city’s partner in the project, Sara Wan of the WAN Conservancy (which paid for the Seal Cam, its installation and some hired camera monitors) told

La Jolla Light

she believes her nonprofit organization will continue overseeing Seal Cam monitoring, though Lee Burdick, the mayor’s Director of Special Projects and Legal Affairs, said the city is still evaluating whether it is more cost effective to monitor the Seal Cam with city employees, or to outsource the job to WAN Conservancy.

Burdick said WAN Conservancy’s original estimate to continue monitoring the Seal Cam was $283,000 per year.

“We have asked them to go back and evaluate that in light of things like the beach being closed at night during pupping season,” Burdick said. “Do you really need to monitor (at night)? Would that cut costs?

“So they’re evaluating their budget. Then, once we get their budget, we’re going to have to look at the expenses that would be involved with the city doing it, and then figure out what is the most cost-effective way to do it for the citizens of San Diego.

“At the end of the day,” Burdick said, “it’s (up to) the city council as to whether they want to budget the money for that purpose and if they believe that’s a good use of the city’s dollars.”

The California Coastal Commission (CCC) required the monitoring plan as a condition for issuing a coastal development permit for the year-round guideline rope spanning Children’s Pool beach (intended to keep humans a safe distance from seals). The three-year plan requires that the city measure the number of seal harassment instances at Children’s Pool, including humans disrupting the marine mammals’ behavior patterns, including migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering.

The plan also states that “authorized data collectors” are instructed to report harassment observed via the Seal Cam, or shown to them in video or photograph form by random observers. Cases of harassment will be documented with other data — including the number and location of seals and humans on the beach at any given time — and submitted to the CCC’s executive director in an annual monitoring report, due one year to the date the CCC issued the coastal development permit (May 16, 2013).

According to the plan, data collectors will be trained by the park ranger assigned to Children’s Pool, and can include “any volunteers the ranger believes may be helpful in assisting in the data collection process” (wording which, presumably, allows for the use of those currently volunteering with, or in the employee of, the WAN Conservancy.)

“I believe that it’s important to preserve, for the city, the discretion to achieve the Coastal Commission’s goals in the most cost effective manner,” Burdick said of the language. “We wanted to get a permit that allowed the city some discretion in deciding how we meet those compliance obligations.”

CCC staff analyst Kanani Brown, told the

Light

the CCC board and its staff ecologist allowed for the use of volunteer monitors in the plan, due to the city’s “limited resources.”

“This is a three-year permit,” Brown said. “If the city would like to continue this permit beyond three years it will have to continue to submit those (annual) monitoring reports.”

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Larry and Sara Wan of the Western Alliance for Nature (WAN) Conservancy at La Jolla Children's Pool. File

Mayor Bob Filner assured the camera would remain in operation at Children’s Pool beach during demolition of the old tower and construction of the new. On Monday, Burdick said the Seal Cam will be mounted atop a construction trailer that will occupy a row of parking spaces during the work.

Burdick said she is not sure whether the Seal Cam will be mounted atop the new tower, once complete, or in a different location.

“I think that’s what everyone is looking toward, but that is such a long way off,” she said. “Whether we will have budget allocation by that point, whether the city will acquire the camera at that point, whether city employees will take over monitoring, it’s impossible to predict. We’re just trying to get through the next three or four months to get things to a stable place, and then reevaluate what we need based on changing circumstances.”

Further confusion

over funding

Mayor Bob Filner budgeted $50,000 for Seal Cam operations and monitoring in the city’s 2013-2014 fiscal year. Speaking with the

La Jolla Light

on June 28, Filner said the $50,000 was to cover the camera’s operational costs only and not to purchase the camera from the WAN Conservancy. “We are not purchasing it,” he said. “It’s theirs.”

The mayor said he was unaware of a banner ad that has been on WAN Conservency’s website for months soliciting donations to “help keep this webcam operating” — despite his participation in a fundraiser on April 25 at Mangelsen Gallery in La Jolla that Sara Wan said brought in $5,000 to cover some of WAN Conservancy’s $40,000 camera costs.

Sara Wan and her husband, Larry, declined to disclose how much they’ve raised for Seal Cam operations through their website banner thus far, though on July 8 Sara Wan told the

Light

the Conservancy had raised far less than $25,000. “It’s a losing proposition,” she said. “We have used our own money to get us to this point.”

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Screen shot of a banner ad soliciting donations for the Seal Cam on the WAN Conservancy website, wan conservancy.org The nonprofit initially asked the City of San Diego for $283,000 a year to monitor the streaming footage with paid camera monitors, according to a spokesperson for the mayor's office.

She added that the amount would be made public as part of the organization’s next tax filing because, at present, the Wans feel the project has been unfairly scrutinized by media and pro-beach advocates.

Burdick said the city does not know how much WAN Conservancy has raised through its website, though she said at some point during their negotiations with the city, that amount would be disclosed.

“That, too, is going to have an impact on the negotiations,” she said. “Obviously, if they can get a grant to fully fund the thing, then the city might be off the hook to pay $50,000. But if they cannot and the mayor feels that this is a very valuable humanitarian service, we’re going to need to look at it and do that cost effectiveness comparison and analysis.”

Should the monitoring be done by paid city employees, Filner told the

Light

last week they could be from Park and Rec or City TV (the city’s municipal government cable access channel).

“The aim is to continue to try and operate (the camera) without the necessity of volunteers,” he said.

To date, Burdick said the city has paid no money to WAN Conservancy for the Seal Cam or related expenses.

“With respect to the $50,000 … we do anticipate some, if not all of that, will likely be paid to the WAN Conservancy to, first of all, relocate the camera during construction and continue to operate it,” she said. “How that money will be spent is currently in negotiation. We’re trying to set a scope of service. We’re looking at whether all of it will be necessary, or if additional funding will be necessary. … The only thing I am certain of is that the expenses associated with relocating it from the lifeguard tower to the construction trailer will be paid as part of that $50,000 budget allocation.”

Meanwhile, members of La Jolla’s Parks and Beaches (LJP&B), which has opposed the Seal Cam project since its installation, formed a subcommittee to draft a proposal for “improved” usage of the Seal Cam if and when Park and Rec staff takes over.

LJP&B will submit details of its proposal, which is now circulating among members for approval, to Park and Rec at a later date.

— Susan DeMaggio and Ashley Mackin contributed to this report.

   
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