'Crisis at The Cove': La Jolla Town Council forum to address sea lion situation

A frustrated La Jolla Town Council will host another community forum to address “The Crisis at The Cove,” caused by “the recent occupation of the popular beach by California sea lions.” The hearing will take place at the council’s meeting 5 p.m. Thursday, June 9 at La Jolla Rec Center, 615 Prospect St.

A press release announcing the forum states, “La Jolla business owners and residents have long complained that the La Jolla Cove has been a source of foul odors emanating from sea lion and bird waste. Now local swimmers and city lifeguard staff are informing the public that The Cove’s environmental problems have escalated due to the ever-expanding population of sea lions occupying the sandy beach in addition to the rocky area east of The Cove that, up until recently, seemed to be the sea lions preferred spot.

“The La Jolla Town Council hopes that by bringing together all available sources of information and public comment — including government officials, residents, local business people, wildlife experts, beach users, ocean swimmers, divers and other interested parties — a reasonable and responsible solution can be developed to both protect the human visitors to La Jolla Cove as well as protecting the sea lions from harassment by visitors.”

Noting that the three-year-old situation has “escalated in a short period of time,” La Jolla Town Council President Ann Kerr Bache told La Jolla Light, “When we reviewed this issue before, there were potential problems with potential solutions. Now the sea lions are there and there is an actual problem. We thought before, ‘this is going to get worse if we don’t do something,’ now it has gotten worse.”

She said she wants to hear from any available government or environmental representative with whatever updates they may provide. Invited were officials from the Mayor’s office, Council President Sherri Lightner’s office, and several environmental agencies, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). City representatives confirmed plans to attend.

“Maybe the city can’t do anything, but at least we would know that so people aren’t pounding their heads against the wall looking and hoping for some response from the city,” Kerr Bache said. “Maybe the people we have invited to speak will have ideas we haven’t heard of before that we could explore. But the state of things, for who knows how long, has been that no one is doing anything and something has to happen.”

Expressing his disappointment and annoyance at the inability to see progress on the lengthy “crisis” situation, past La Jolla Town Council President Steve Haskins, who also hosted forums on the topic last year, said he hopes as many people as possible show up and any government officials on hand bend an ear. “My hope is that different parties with different interests attend and as a group, we come up with some possible solutions.”

May 28, 2013: Responding to citizens requests to reduce the noxious odors in the Village emanating from The Cove (which at this time everyone believes is due to cormorant and sea lion guano), Mayor Bob Filner announces that the city hired Blue Eagle Distribution to clean the excrement from the rocks. The Blue Eagle product contains seven, lab-cultured microbes that feed on the waste, leaving only a chalky substance behind.

“The biggest risk we have in the siutation is the sea lions moving higher up on the rocks, being more of an impediment,” said Keith Merkel, biologist. A second phase starts Sept. 24.

January 2014: In another effort to reduce the noxious odors from The Cove, now believed to be primarily due to sea lion waste on the bluffs, a gate goes into the railing to allow pedestrian access. The intent is have more human presence diminish the number of sea lions on the rarely-rinsed rocks, and encourage the pinnipeds to spend more time in the water and on lower ocean-rinsed rocks.

February 2015: The City of San Diego hires pinniped expert Doyle Hanan of Hanan and Associates, Inc., to evaluate and propose a solution to the situation. More than $24,000 is set aside so Hanan can, “study and identity potential opportunities for changing the behavior or haul-out conditions of the sea lion colony now expanding along the La Jolla coastline,” and file a report with the city. The results have been considered “pending” ever since.

March 2015: A 5-year-old boy is bitten by a sea lion at La Jolla Cove. The boy’s father reportedly lets him approach a group of sea lions to pet one, when an adult sea lion turns and bites the child on the cheek. The boy’s father declines medical coverage, but later takes him to the hospital.

March 27, 2015: A Superior Court judge rejects claims against the City of San Diego contained in a lawsuit filed by La Jolla business owners and citizens who sued the city for public officials’ failure to rid La Jolla Cove of its pervasive odor from bird and marine mammal waste. Confirming his previous tentative ruling, Judge Timothy Taylor granted the city’s motion for summary judgment in the lawsuit filed two years ago by Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement (CONA). Its pro-bono lawyer, Norm Blumenthal plans to appeal the decision.

April 2015: La Jolla Town Council hosts its first sea lion forum to get a better understanding of the biology and behavior of the animals, and meet with the CONA, a group of Village business owners suing the city for failure to act on the pervasive stench.

Mid April 2015: La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory group gives the city until May 30 to address growing concerns. Calling it “an emergency waiting to happen,” the board presses the city to install some sort of mechanism to keep sea lions from moving off the beach; conduct regular cleanups of the stairs, deck and walkway areas; and institute a monitoring program of beach inspection and sand cleaning.

July 2015: San Diego Park & Recreation director Herman Parker responds to La Jolla Parks & Beaches request with a letter explaining how the listed concerns were being addressed. Among his comments, “The city has engaged Doyle A. Hanan, Ph.D. of Hanan and Associates, Inc., to monitor the sea lion population at The Cove area. Based on this ongoing work, the city will look for opportunities to address issues that may arise from the sea lion population. Additionally, funding was allocated in the Fiscal Year 2015-2016 budget to begin work to develop a coastal marine life management plan for the area that will address the interaction of people, animal and marine life in the area. The activity of sea lions will be part of that plan.”

January 2016: Then La Jolla Town Council President Steve Haskins announces at La Jolla Community Center, a rolling barrier plan to keep the sea lions off the bluffs. The proposal calls for the installation of metal cables across key access points along the bluffs with rolling plastic cylinders to keep the sea lions from gaining enough traction to climb onto the rocks. Their alternative would be to rest on the lower rocks, which are washed by the tides. (Note: Since then, sea lions increasingly haul-out on the beach at La Jolla Cove, quickly making it their habit to rest on the sand, rocks, stairs and benches.)

March 2016: La Jolla Town Council hands over the rolling barrier plans to Mayor Kevin Faulconer. His office reports it will need to wait for the results of Hanan’s report to see if the barrier proposal is feasible.

May 2016: The San Diego County Department of Public Health posts Water Quality Advisory signs at The Cove, cautioning swimmers to enter at their own risk. The signs read: “Warning! Contact with this water may cause illness. Bacteria levels exceed health standards.”

May 31, 2016: Due to the bacteria contamination in Cove waters, the 100th anniversary Rough Water Swim, set for September, is cancelled.

June 1, La Jolla Light learns from Alex Bell of the county communications department that, “the most recent water quality advisory was lifted in late May, and that is when the swim advisory signs were removed. The county tests the water regularly, and found that enough samples meet state health standards.”


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