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Guest commentary: Blaming sea lions and seals for La Jolla’s problems, real or imagined, is far-fetched

A mother sea lion and her pup spend some time in La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Roxy Grant)

The Sierra Club Seal Society responds to the guest commentary “Environmental report is needed to study impacts of seals and sea lions in La Jolla” (Aug. 25, La Jolla Light). In the commentary, Mr. [Kurt] Hoffman blames the presence of the unique seal and sea lion rookeries for everything from trash left by humans in Scripps Park to increased traffic congestion in The Village, cliff erosion, increased vendors and even the closure of a T-shirt store!

These false claims and comparisons between unrelated items are hallmarks of misinformation. Most people would agree his conclusions are far-fetched.

La Jolla has changed from the early days when there was less tourism and parks and coastlines were less congested than today. Tourism has been increasing as La Jolla has successfully promoted itself as a top San Diego destination with fine dining, shops, wildlife and scenery. In fact, The Cove is rated as one of the most beautiful beaches in America, according to Tripadvisor. Irresponsible tourism, lack of parking and public transportation and a shortage of park support services fuel most local concerns. It is a fallacy to attribute them to the natural California marine environment, including sea lions and their plump newborn pups.

La Jolla is privileged to have marine reserves, a deep underwater canyon and a kelp forest that attract marine life and mammals, including seals and sea lions, garibaldi (California’s saltwater state fish), leopard sharks, stingrays and even turtles. Statistics show that seal numbers have not been increasing since the Children’s Pool was closed for pupping season in 2014, and sea lion numbers have remained steady at below 200 since the extensive counts undertaken for the 2017 Hanan report commissioned by the city of San Diego.

The presence of sea lions and seals does, however, create amazing sights and experiences for visitors from all over the world, as La Jolla is the only place where pinnipeds give birth and raise their young in an urban environment. Plus, it’s free! Tourists spend hours mesmerized by the sights of a seal pup birth, sea lion pups playing by the water’s edge testing their swimming skills, and male bulls fighting for territory and the right to mate. Many businesses such as dive shops, snorkel and kayak tours and even restaurants and other shops rely on La Jolla’s wildlife habitat to attract customers year-round.

Sea lions regularly bodysurf the waves at Boomer Beach and perform amazing airborne 360-degree flips out of the back of a wave just for fun. They also climb on top of one another and rest in a position that looks like a yoga pose, honoring the sun. They are highly intelligent and curious by nature and often interact with divers. Simply, they entertain the public.

Could these playful sea lions be responsible for the relatively new juvenile white shark nursery off Torrey Pines [State Beach], as suggested in the commentary? Chris Lowe, who heads the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, says no.

Local marine biologist says he sees no evidence to support fears of adult great white sharks, drawn by sea lions, using Point La Jolla as a hunting ground.

The shark nursery near Scripps Pier is over a mile away from the sea lion rookery and The Cove. In the PBS documentary mentioned in the commentary (bit.ly/3T3xm0G), Lowe says the white shark nursery has been moving down the coast from Santa Barbara, probably attracted by warmer water. The juveniles feed on the abundant stingrays and bat rays and not on seals and sea lions. How does he know? No remains of seals or sea lions have been found in dead juvenile white sharks’ stomachs.

Shark Lab has been tagging juveniles for many years and has found that they leave the San Diego coast for deeper water when they reach adulthood. Juvenile sharks in Torrey Pines waters may look large but appear to coexist with people surfing, paddleboarding or otherwise sharing the ocean.

Finally, the writer asked for an environmental impact report (EIR) in La Jolla. He knows that over the past few years, the city has reviewed multiple requests for an EIR and each time the city determined it was not necessary nor required by law. The most recent request was denied earlier this year. The California Coastal Commission agreed with the city’s determination. Further requests would only waste city resources and taxpayers’ money.

Ocean-goers and other interested parties must work together to protect La Jolla’s areas of special biological significance from destructive human activity (pollution, trash, harassment, erosion and overuse) and adopt an attitude of “swimming in harmony” with the inhabitants of the ocean world. Seals and sea lions are part of La Jolla’s environment and part of its ecosystem.

The Sierra Club Seal Society continues to seek realistic ways to achieve solutions based on environmental expert opinions, data collection and experience in managing human-wildlife interactions. We welcome sensible discussions rather than attributing blame for unrelated items to the unique sea lions and seals of La Jolla.

Robyn Davidoff is chairwoman of the Sierra Club Seal Society.