‘It’s a Matter of Political Will’ — Faulting the city for inaction, ‘Crisis at The Cove’ forum looks at how to remove sea lions from La Jolla

A judge may have ruled that the City of San Diego is not responsible for the stench at La Jolla Cove, but when it comes to the burgeoning sea lion population there, and the myriad problems therein, attendees of the La Jolla Town Council “Crisis at the Cove” hearing, think the time has come for the city to take action.

At a standing-room-only forum at La Jolla Rec Center June 9, residents hungry for a solution turned out to hear from panelists and government officials about the situation and any available options to discourage sea lions from gathering at The Cove. Panelists included diver John Leek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries Special Agent Michelle Zetwo, La Jolla Cove Swim Club president Dan Simonelli, and La Jolla Parks & Beaches president Dan Allen. Although San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer did not attend, his Director of Outreach, John Lye, spoke briefly and took notes to report back. Neither Council President Sherri Lightner nor a representative was on hand, but City Council District 1 candidate Barbara Bry attended.

Calling it a “very recent” situation, Town Council president Ann Kerr Bache told the assemblage, “Sea lions have completely taken over The Cove, all the way up the stairs and past the lifeguard tower. There have been incidences where they have blocked tourists and gotten very aggressive. I’ve personally witnessed them (defecating) near the lifeguard tower. Now there are buses of tourists that are coming and taking ‘selfies’ with the sea lions,” she said.

Because the Town Council serves as a “forum for the community” and acts as “a voice for La Jolla residents,” she said, “We’ve gathered to hear all sides and see what a solution might be for the Town Council to consider.”

After brief introductions from the panelists, more than 20 people from the audience shared their thoughts. Their messages ranged from nostalgic anecdotes about swimming at The Cove to suggestions for what deterrent methods could be used to fend off the sea lions, to hopes that humans would leave the animals alone, and hypotheses as to why their population has grown, and more.

Several questioned whether legal harassment methods outlined under Section 109h of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) could be implemented on a consistent basis to discourage the sea lions from congregating at The Cove. The section allows the city to assign or designate a person or persons to carry out certain physical, audial or visual deterrents or harassment tactics without filing for permits or requiring permission from NOAA.

Zetwo explained, “NOAA has said the (City of San Diego does) indeed have the ability to deal with animals that are overtaking beaches. In Dana Point for example, the city paid someone to be at docks (that were experiencing a growing pinniped population) seven days a week for a certain period of time to get the animals away. They used a variety of (MMPA permitted) deterrents, such as spraying them with a water hose. Other permitted methods include physical barriers and exclusion devices such as fencing, bull rails, electric livestock fencing, visual repellants and noisemakers. So there are many things NOAA has recommended.”

When asked whether a citizen could implement any of those measures, Zetwo said the way the law reads, a federal, state or local government official or such person designated would have to be the one.

Faulting the city for not yet designating such a person, Simonelli said, “It’s amazing to me that this has become such a bureaucratic issue. But this problem is not new, we’ve been dealing with this and watching the problem evolve … We’ve heard that we have the ability to deter the sea lions, but we’ve run into a snag as to who is authorized to do that. We’ve spoken to City Council members, but many said La Jolla was not in their jurisdiction, as if La Jolla Cove is only for La Jollans. It’s a citywide issue. We don’t need any fancy equipment, we just need a consistent plan to deter the sea lions and get them away. It’s just a matter of political will and city officials establishing a person assigned to do the job.”

Representing the Mayor, Lye said he would have to confer with the City Attorney’s office to gather more information about who could be designated. His answer was met with boos and hisses from the audience.

Radio silence from City Hall

La Jolla Town Council president Ann Kerr Bache leads the forum.
(Ashley Mackin)

Fueling the fire of frustration at the lack of response or action from local government officials, Kerr Bache said leading up to the forum, she reached out to the Mayor’s office and the Department of Park & Rec for an update. However, both offices said they were awaiting the results of an extensive “yearlong” study by marine consultant Doyle Hanan, of Hanan and Associates, Inc., whom the city contracted in February 2015 to study the situation. The city maintains it can not provide feedback until his report is submitted and evaluated.

In April 2015, When La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory group wrote to the City demanding action on the sea lion problem, the response was similar. “Our organization wrote a letter to the Department of Park & Rec and we used the same word used in this meeting: Crisis,” chair Allen said at the forum. “We made several suggestions, such as a gate on the stairs, cleaning the steps and the sand, and behavior modification. The city responded to us in July and (dismissed our suggestions) citing limited staff and limited resources. We were also told the city was completing the (Doyle Hanan) study and would base any response on that.”

City rep Lye responded that the report results could be expected “in the very new future,” and this answer also met with comments from the room. Citing the vague scope of “La Jolla Cove,” Kerr Bache asked if the study would evaluate sea lions behavior on the bluffs, the beach, the water, the rocks around the beach, or some combination. The answer was not known.

“My worry is that a lot of these problems did not exist when the study was contracted,” she said.

Demand for action

Among the comments from the public, many called for citizens to write to elected officials and demand action. San Diego Council of Divers president Joel Tracey said, “Our position is that the City of San Diego has a responsibility to maintain beach access for humans. Misguided city policy has lead us to where we are now, with two beaches overrun by marine mammals (the other being Children’s Pool).” Added another speaker, “It’s about city officials getting together and agreeing to use every available mean to get rid of the sea lions … let your city officials know that the lack of action is causing us to lose the resource that is the jewel of La Jolla.” Swimmer Doug Burleigh opined, “If 100 wild pigs took up residence at Torrey Pines Golf Course and (defecated) all over it, what would the city do?”

As the forum was taking place, a petition was circling asking Mayor Faulconer to “please remove the pollution (by sea lions) from the La Jolla Cove so we can swim.” By meeting’s end, the petition had 94 signatures.

As for what’s next at the Town Council level, Kerr Bache said, “The next step is for us to digest what we’ve heard tonight and what the MMPA allows us to do, and what the role of Town Council might be in acting as a catalyst to get the stakeholders and decision-makers together. But we have to take action.”