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‘Ill-considered’: Community planning group votes to appeal San Diego’s planned closure of Point La Jolla

Beach-goers gather to watch sea lions hauling out at Point La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Two days after the city of San Diego filed for a temporary emergency permit to close part of Point La Jolla to the public to try to prevent close interaction between people and sea lions, the La Jolla Community Planning Association voted Aug. 5 to appeal the decision.

The permit application has been submitted, but details about the planned closure, including the date when it would go into effect and the mechanism by which Point La Jolla would be closed, will not be available until the permit is secured, the city said. But at LJCPA’s online meeting, City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said that once it starts, it would be in effect until Sept. 15.

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.

Point La Jolla is a rocky area between La Jolla Cove beach and Boomer Beach, where sea lions often go on land to rest. The planned closure would be beyond the seawall beginning at Boomer Beach and ending at the access stairway leading to the bluff.

LaCava attempted to clarify why the city is going this route.

“The action that has been taken [on the proposed closure] … is the evolution of several attempts to control the activities out there in Point La Jolla in relationship to the sea lions,” he said. “We tried measured steps … such as park rangers and interns to provide education for people out there. This year took a different turn coming out of the pandemic. We started a media campaign to let people know to conduct ‘responsible tourism’ with the hopes that might enlighten folks about preventing interaction with the sea lions. Yet people still go right up to the sea lions, put their children next to them, take selfies with them.”

The permit application from the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department to the city Development Services Department — which oversees coastal development permits such as that needed to temporarily close the area — came after months of reports of beach-goers bothering, and in a few cases harming, sea lions and pups.

In June, the Sierra Club Seal Society and Sierra Club San Diego called on Mayor Todd Gloria to declare an emergency and temporarily close Point La Jolla 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. 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.”

LaCava said the “responsible tourism” campaign and the sign program were “not particularly effective” and that the city has decided to take “more assertive steps.” He added that he has personally witnessed interactions between people and sea lions.

“We did not want to get to this point, but there seemed to be an inevitability out there because there are too many first-time visitors and tourists,” he said.

Some who attended the meeting criticized the city for taking actions that seemed to lead to this point.

Beach access advocate and La Jolla Parks & Beaches board member Ken Hunrichs noted that a city-contracted report on sea lions that became known as the Hanan Report in 2015 had strategies for handling the then-burgeoning sea lion population at La Jolla Cove.

“In that study, there were several options presented, including removing the wildlife,” Hunrichs said. “The city chose to take the least expensive and least obtrusive option of putting up signs and hoping for the best. … Now we see that was not effective.”

LJCPA trustee Mike Costello argued that the city’s decision in 2014 to keep people away from the nearby Children’s Pool beach during the annual harbor seal pupping season from mid-December to mid-May encouraged more harbor seals to get closer to land.

Expressing concern that something similar would happen at Point La Jolla, he said: “It’s up to the city to either allow this or not. … Why on Earth are you turning our precious beaches over to a species that doesn’t need it?”

Other concerns were expressed about whether, if more sea lions are encouraged to use the area, that would, in turn, disrupt the ecosystem.

“We have seen a huge change in our local ecosystem,” La Jollan Kurt Hoffman said. “We have seen the sea urchins explode in population because the sea lions are eating the lobsters and sheepshead fish that eat the sea urchins. … Now we are talking about expanding this ill-advised change to the ecosystem.”

In response, LaCava said: “Seals and people co-existed at Children’s Pool for years … but the interaction between the people and the seals made that situation untenable. The only thing that has motivated the city [on Point La Jolla] is, how do we deal with the interaction between the people and the sea lions? It has gotten to the point where the city can no longer stand back.”

LaCava said he was working with lifeguards and the Parks & Recreation Department to determine how access to Boomer Beach would be handled.

“It’s a little more confusing about where you can and cannot go, especially to a first-time visitor, but we hope it will be successful,” he said.

After Sept. 15, when the proposed closure would be lifted, LaCava said the city would “go through the more methodical open process to talk to the community as to what kind of long-term program we might want to consider.”

LJCPA trustee Larry Davidson suggested the city use that time to perform a risk/benefit analysis.

But LJCPA President Diane Kane called the proposed closure “ill-considered and ... ill-advised.”

A motion to appeal the city’s decision passed 12-2, with trustees Helen Boyden and Ray Wiess dissenting without comment. The appeal is expected to be sent to the city in coming days. ◆