Guest commentary: Closing Point La Jolla year-round is best for visitors and sea lions alike

People gather at Point La Jolla to view the sea lions there in January 2022.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The Sierra Club Seal Society is dismayed by La Jolla Parks & Beaches’ disapproval of the city of San Diego’s plan for a year-round closure at the Point La Jolla sea lion rookery (“Parks & Beaches board blasts San Diego’s planned year-round Point La Jolla closure,” May 4, La Jolla Light). The Seal Society attended that meeting and it was clear that some board members hadn’t read the [city’s] long-term management plan.

We can all agree that La Jolla’s coastline is a unique wildlife area with seals, sea lions, cormorants, leopard sharks, a deep-water canyon and a Marine Protected Area that is great for diving, snorkeling, kayaking and other water activities. The
resident sea lions at Point La Jolla are a top tourist attraction and drive revenue for local businesses both on land and in the water.

Managing visitor safety, tourism overuse and public access are top priorities. The long-term management plan balances these within the constraints of city staffing and enforcement limitations.

The Seal Society read the plan for the first time after it was posted on the city’s website. SCSS welcomes the decision to close Point La Jolla year-round to protect both visitors and sea lions while keeping an ocean access corridor open year-round. This is a win-win management strategy.

What area will be closed? The closure area at Point La Jolla is a rocky outcropping between The Cove and Boomer Beach. It includes the north end of Boomer Beach, as both areas are natural habitats for sea lions to give birth and raise their young. The year-round closure does not apply to the Children’s Pool or The Cove.

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

What about ocean access? Locals know Boomer Beach is not a swimming beach and is famous for its dangerous rip tides, rocks and reefs. Experienced ocean users such as bodysurfers and spear fishermen have year-round access to Boomer Beach via the historic trail built for them years ago. City-collected data during the seasonal closure [last year] showed only a handful of users per week. The closure will therefore predominantly affect tourists who are often unaware of their impact on erosion, destruction of flora and fauna and disturbance of sea lions.

What other options were considered? The city plan was written by an outside consultant hired by Parks & Recreation and other city officials, working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the [California] Coastal Commission. After nine months of investigation into other options, including guide ropes, railings and fences along the boardwalk wall, they were deemed unacceptable, as they might inhibit views of the La Jolla coastline.

The plan discusses other areas where sea lions haul out and found that they cannot be relocated or humanely deterred. Pier 39 in San Francisco has embraced sea lions and partnered with marine mammal experts and the aquarium there to create a safe viewing platform.

The Coastal Commission requested that the rookery be closed year-round due to lack of city, state and federal management staff and unsafe conditions for both the public and sea lions. District 1 City Councilman Joe LaCava agreed that the only thing that worked to keep people and children safe was closure, as demonstrated in the 2022 birthing season closure.

Limited ranger working hours also mean the area is unsupervised during some of the busiest visiting times, such as sundown.

Why are sea lions here? According to the 2017 Hanan management plan, sea lions have been La Jolla residents since at least 2002. They weren’t brought here. It is the coastline habitat that attracts them. City-collected numbers show the sea lion population has remained stable at 180-200, with some seasonal peaks.

When the area was open, rangers found it impossible to keep over 300 people per hour from taking selfies with sea lions or parents placing their children to pose next to them. People fell on the rocky bluffs, and one ranger fell and was rescued by lifeguards. Even with the stairs closed due to storm damage, a chain across the entrance and caution tape, people are seen climbing over the chain to descend into the area to approach the sea lions. There are videos of people doing this, as well as sea lion harassment.

Are sea lions damaging marine life? Independent research [e.g., from Flinders University in Australia] indicates their waste is critical to the ecosystem and contributes to marine productivity, diversity and fish supplies.

What about an environmental impact report? This has been evaluated and deemed unnecessary by the city and the Coastal Commission four times.

Sea lions are part of La Jolla’s community and coastline. Protecting this fragile coastline from excessive trampling by tourists will reduce the fragile bluffs’ erosion and destruction of wildlife habitat.

The Sierra Club Seal Society of San Diego, chaired by Robyn Davidoff, administers a docent program at La Jolla’s harbor seal and sea lion habitats and organizes several beach and park cleanups yearly.