Guest commentary: Environmental report is needed to study impacts of seals and sea lions in La Jolla

Sea lions rest at Point La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Sierra Club Seal Society)

The coastal vendors who have grown their numbers in La Jolla over the past decade are directly related to our local seal and sea lion sanctuaries at Seal Rock, the Children’s Pool and now Point La Jolla (“Increase in vendors vexes many La Jollans, but sellers say they plan to stay,” Aug. 18, La Jolla Light).

As the city of San Diego and SeaWorld have encouraged more pinnipeds to come to our La Jolla shores, more tourists have followed, the vendors have taken notice and moved more of their operations here as well. The results of this confluence on La Jolla are obvious: more erosion on our coastal bluffs, dead grass and exposed dirt along our Ellen Browning Scripps Park walkways, and tons of trash generated by the discarded coconuts and food packaging.

The underwater impacts of the seals and sea lions are not so obvious. We see and smell the feces- and urine-filled dead tidal pools along with the still-birth pups on the rocky bluffs. We can only speculate on the underwater impacts to our fragile La Jolla coastal waters and the historic Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve.

The Seal Society folks say the seal tourists are a benefit to La Jolla businesses, but we now see the long-standing La Jolla T-shirt shop closing, and I can’t imagine that other businesses likely paying over $12,000 per month for frontage on Prospect [Street] and Girard [Avenue] appreciate vendors selling at the Children’s Pool and Scripps Park without paying La Jolla rent or local taxes.

Tourists are busy trying to squeeze as much as possible into their limited vacation time here. Walking up the hill to Prospect and Girard is too difficult for most tourists, and the idea of trying to find or paying for a second parking spot up on the Village Mesa is likely a bit too daunting for many families to visit both the sea lions and Duke’s on the same trip into our community.

Others see the tourists that come to La Jolla to see the pinnipeds as transient in nature — they drive in by car or bus, walk along the coast, patronize the coastal vendors and then mostly drive out of our community. Not only does this create more air pollution, traffic and trash, this constant coming and going of humanity inconveniences our residents and businesspeople. These pinniped commuters also make it more difficult for the clients of our Prospect Street restaurants, hotels and Girard Avenue shops to get into and navigate our beautiful seaside community. No comprehensive study has been completed to address all the issues related to our nascent pinniped colonies.

We need to study what is happening with the growing seal and sea lion populations in our local waters and on land to understand what may happen if La Jolla becomes a major sea lion rookery, as it is on its way to becoming. The city of San Diego must commission an EIR [environmental impact report] to study the entire La Jolla Canyon marine ecosystem as well as the land, traffic, parking and other environmental impacts on the community of La Jolla. We cannot continue to close areas of our coast, rehabilitate sick and injured animals and encourage more pinnipeds to change their historic birthing patterns and come to our shores without studying the impacts.

As a native San Diegan waterman, I fished La Jolla waters and bodysurfed Boomer Beach for decades. We rarely saw many sea lions in the 1980s and ‘90s, and up until 10 years ago, we had no issues with seals and sea lions in La Jolla. We swam together in harmony. Now we have conflict and closures.

Kurt Hoffman writes that this shark advisory sign was posted Aug. 20 at Torrey Pines State Beach.
(Courtesy of Kurt Hoffman)

Today, I mostly SUP [stand-up paddleboard] surf and have observed 40 8- to 12-foot white sharks in the past year off Torrey Pines [State Beach], where a shark advisory sign was posted last Saturday [Aug. 20]. I had not encountered a great white shark in all my previous 50-plus years on and in our local waters. Our local marine environment has changed dramatically over the past decade. A comprehensive analysis of our local marine ecosystem must be completed to understand what is happening and why.

The city of San Diego has passed legislation to create more protections for pinnipeds, which are already protected by the MMPA [Marine Mammal Protection Act], without considering the consequences for its ocean-active citizens. We cannot afford to wait six years to see how much more the local sea lion population grows and impacts our community with the current Point La Jolla seasonal closure. We need to study the impacts of the local sea lion colony now, before our marine and terrestrial environments are any further depleted. Restoring a damaged environment is much more costly and difficult than the destruction that is now occurring.

A PBS video provides a well-balanced discussion of the growing pinniped and white shark populations along our local coastline. The real story here is the unintended environmental consequences that come from legislation such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the California ban of near-shore coastal gill nets.

I am not a scientist, but I can imagine the progression of the current events and legislative leanings. We need an EIR to study our local waters, air and land before we continue to pass legislation to encourage more sea lions and seals to change their historic birthing patterns and utilize our beloved La Jolla as a pinniped rookery. La Jolla may only be a decade behind Cape Cod [Mass.], with a very similar gray seal population explosion and accompanying white shark issues that have developed over the past few decades. The gray seal population on Cape Cod has rebounded dramatically since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the white sharks have taken notice. Gray seals and California sea lions are very similar; adult white sharks feed on both, and our local “juveniles” are growing to adulthood.

We need to consider the unintended consequences of our actions and the impacts on our environment with legislation to close our beaches and coastal bluffs. Prioritizing pinnipeds over humans presents other consequences in our environment. Impacts on our kelp beds, fish and invertebrate populations, as well as the bacteria levels in our local waters, are all issues we need to study related to the dramatic rebound of pinnipeds along our beloved La Jolla coastline.

Kurt Hoffman is an ocean access advocate, bodysurfer, fisherman, ocean swimmer and SUP surfer.