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City pursuing temporary emergency closure of Point La Jolla to ‘protect the public and the sea lion rookery’

Beach-goers and sea lions gather at Point La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The city of San Diego on Aug. 3 announced its intention to issue an emergency permit to temporarily close a portion of Point La Jolla starting this week and lasting through Sept. 15.

The closure would help “protect the public and the sea lion rookery located along the shoreline during the annual sea lion pupping season,” according to a news release.

“We have called for responsible tourism, met with stakeholders, installed new signage, and yet crowds continue to seek up-close encounters with the sea lions,” said City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla. “The temporary closure … will curtail access to Point La Jolla while preserving the unique viewing of sea lions. Further, it provides the city additional time to continue conversations with stakeholders on effective methods to manage our coastline for all to safely enjoy.”

Point La Jolla is a rocky area between La Jolla Cove beach and Boomer Beach, where sea lions often go on land to rest. Additional details about the closure, such as the date when it would go into effect and the mechanism by which Point La Jolla would be closed, won’t be available until the permit is secured, according to city spokesman Tim Graham.

The closure would be beyond the seawall beginning at Boomer Beach and ending at the access stairway leading to the bluff.

For La Jolla beach access advocates who watched the city of San Diego slowly take steps over the past 20 years to seasonally close the Children’s Pool, the situation evolving at Boomer Beach is providing unwanted déjà vu.

The city Development Services Department oversees coastal development permits such as that needed to temporarily close the area, Graham said.

The temporary closure is coming after months of reports of conflicts between beach-goers and sea lions in the area. In June, the Sierra Club Seal Society and Sierra Club San Diego called on Mayor Todd Gloria to declare an emergency and temporarily close the site to the public during sea lion pupping season, which runs from June 1 to Oct. 31, while keeping the viewing area from an adjacent wall open.

Rather than pursue a closure, the city in early July posted signage at the entrance to Point La Jolla and Boomer Beach. Some signs read “Stay back: Sea lion birthing area.” Others caution that sea lions can bite and that harassing them is against the law. The stenciling, placed on trash cans, the sidewalk and the short wall that lines Point La Jolla, reads “Do not approach mothers or pups” and “Do not approach sea lions.”

The Aug. 3 news release stated: “The closure serves to protect both the public and marine life while complying with federal Marine Mammal Protection Act regulations during this sensitive time when mother sea lions are raising their young. Sea lions can become aggressive when they feel threatened and can cause serious bodily injury to visitors who get too close.”

Andy Field, director of the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department, said: “It is imperative that we are taking steps to minimize potential injuries to both the public and the sea lions during pupping season as interactions between the two continue to increase. It is of utmost importance that we are protecting adults and children while respecting the sea lions as they care for their young.”

The city also will begin a public process to determine long-term decisions regarding a potential seasonal closure of the Point La Jolla area for sea lion pupping season.

Local beach access advocates were not happy about the news.

La Jolla Parks & Beaches board member Ken Hunrichs said the idea is a “mistake by the city” and that local officials should have instead “demanded that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Marine Fisheries Service take charge of their pinnipeds.”

Hunrichs said the situation at Point La Jolla is “not an emergency” but “just another way to circumvent the desires of the local community by claiming a public safety emergency. … San Diego citizens have been sold out once again as the city looks to cater to tourists by creating this misplaced attraction at the expense of San Diego beach users.”

Volker Hoehne, a member of the San Diego Council of Divers, said diving and spearfishing groups in the area consider Point La Jolla “religious ground.”

“Point La Jolla is where our founders started the sport and where we honor our founding fathers. So this is equivalent to closing the Vatican [for us],” Hoehne said. “If we close Point La Jolla, we might want to get ready to close other beaches in La Jolla.”

“There are other options besides a closure, and this has not been properly vetted,” Hoehne added. As an alternative, he suggested forming a panel of experts familiar with sea lion behavior to come up with a science-based solution “rather than the reactionary closure” the city is exploring.

On the other hand, Sierra Club San Diego chapter director Richard Miller said he supports the decision to pursue a temporary closure.

“This is one of the only major sea lion rookeries on the western part of California where the public can get up close in an urban setting,” he said. “So this is a unique opportunity for the city and for La Jolla to have this kind of tourist attraction in a way that protects sea lions and the people.”

He said the temporary closure could be a model for any future closures.

“In the future, we would like to see a permanent annual closure during pupping season,” Miller said. “One thing the city could do is extend the [horizontal] railing along the wall, which would help. ...

“The signage is OK, but it’s not enough.” ◆