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Guest commentary: Mismanagement of Point La Jolla is an embarrassment to San Diego

A sea lion and her pup are pictured at Point La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Sierra Club Seal Society)

As soon as I arrived in San Diego, I was on a mission to see marine mammals from land for the first time in my life. So, as any tourist might do, I made my way down to the famous La Jolla Cove. I distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable watching people pose for selfies with sea lions and wondering why this was allowed. It’s been nearly five years since that first experience and I am still asking this question today.

At the time of my visit I was completing my environmental science and biology degree and decided I would do anything to work with marine mammals. There wasn’t as much opportunity to work with them on the East Coast, so I packed up my car and moved across the country to pursue my quintessential California dream.

I’ve spent the past few years establishing my career as a wildlife biologist. Some of my most notable experiences include working with the San Diego Zoo on the Coronado Navy base to study the endangered California least tern and the Western snowy plover, as well as surveying for the burrowing owl and the critically endangered Mojave desert tortoise with the U.S. Geological Survey.

I am also a proud member of the Sierra Club San Diego Seal Society. I regularly serve as a docent to educate and communicate with the public about our efforts to protect harbor seals and California sea lions. Part of my job as a volunteer and biologist is to observe animals, document behavior and understand human impacts on their environment.

With that said, I have never in my career regularly witnessed such awfulness to wildlife as I have seen at Point La Jolla as a direct result of human actions. People have been seen petting, kicking, throwing sand at and even picking up seal pups to pose for photos. This type of behavior is seriously disturbing to the animals and can result in dangerous physical conflict as well as mothers abandoning their pups. It is also illegal, as it violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

I realized my dream to study marine mammals was a little different than I had originally anticipated. I immediately recognized the need to incorporate a human dimension of conservation management and, simply put, that has turned into babysitting the public.

If the Seal Society docents had a choice, we would much rather educate people and observe these wild animals acting naturally, but we do not have that option. With the absence of rangers, we are left without enforcement to provide proper protections. The La Jolla sea lion rookery at The Cove is cited by Tripadvisor as the ninth-best beach to visit in the United States, attracting visitors from all over the world at a rate of up to 300 people per hour.

Many complain of the lack of enforcement and ask why the area is open to the public. It is an embarrassment to San Diego to allow such human harassment to occur, and it is unsafe for both people and sea lions.

Ahead of a planned California Coastal Commission hearing in April on the city of San Diego’s proposed seasonal closure of Point La Jolla, representatives of all sides of the issue aired their concerns and comments to the commission during its three days of online meetings last week.

Fortunately, at the Children’s Pool we see a different, much calmer setting of undisturbed and relaxed harbor seals as a result of a five-month seasonal closure. We thank our volunteers, including Pam Thomas, who helped the harbor seals see these protections after a decade of unnecessary conflict.

The Seal Society continues to advocate for a similar seasonal closure for the sea lions at Point La Jolla. The problem with the [city’s] proposed closure dates of May 25 to Sept. 15 is that this period is not long enough to meet the requirements and purpose of the closure, i.e., protecting sea lions from human interaction, aligning with the MMPA and ensuring public safety.

Point La Jolla should see a similar five-month period of closure instead of only three months. Sea lion pups cannot feed themselves until 11 months old and they do not swim well until they are at least 3 or 4 months old. This means they require more time on land. The Seal Society has records proving that sea lion mothers and pups use Boomer Beach to haul out and rest. Six births were recorded on Boomer Beach in the last week of May 2021.

Mothers will also leave their pups for long periods of time on Boomer Beach while they hunt for food, and pups become vulnerable to human harassment. If closure doesn’t occur until May 25, pups will be born while the rookery is open to people.

Closure dates must be set at a minimum of May 1 to Oct. 31 for pupping season to be successful. The Boomer Beach access also is necessary to include in the closure to provide full protections for the animals during pupping season.

If we want to see these animals around for the next generation to enjoy, we must go beyond a seasonal closure and provide a full-year closure with rangers present. Are we going to wait until this population becomes nearly endangered to care? What will happen to them in 10 years when La Jolla experiences even more visitors and residents?

We can be a leader in this conflict by using sound conservation science to govern this embarrassing mismanagement of humans and wildlife. A solution is made possible when we all work together to benefit the coexistence and safety of humans and wild animals.

I want to thank Carol Toye, Robyn Davidoff, Ellen Shively and Pam Thomas for being role models in providing a solution. They have inspired me to take action and speak up for the protection of these marine mammals.

Natalie Cibel is a docent with the Sierra Club Seal Society.