Coastal Commission weighs in on managing ‘out of control’ human/sea lion situation at Point La Jolla

People and sea lions mingle at Point La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

‘Our challenge is to work with the city to move this along as quickly as possible,’ the state agency’s executive director says.


As the city of San Diego explores a permit to close Point La Jolla during the next sea lion pupping season, animal-rights advocates went to the California Coastal Commission to plead their case.

Several members of the Sierra Club Seal Society and the Sierra Club of San Diego spoke during public comments during a commission meeting last month, and though no action was taken, some commissioners called ongoing instances of people getting too close to and harassing the sea lions “out of control” and “quite disturbing.”

Point La Jolla, a rocky area between La Jolla Cove beach and Boomer Beach where sea lions often go on land to rest, was closed on an emergency basis for five weeks in late summer to keep people away from the sea lions. Point La Jolla also is a sea lion birthing area where the annual pupping season is recognized from June 1 to Oct. 31.

Seal Society docent Ellen Shively said Point La Jolla is “one of the few sea lion rookeries on mainland California, giving the public the rare chance to view intact sea lion colonies interacting with their normal behaviors at a rookery. It is a popular tourist attraction … crowds of people can be seen year-round congregating around the wild sea lions without direction or guidance or even being aware that there are recommended viewing guidelines.”

She told commissioners that “you helped us with the harbor seals in the past [by recommending a seasonal closure of the Children’s Pool, where harbor seals haul out during their pupping season]. Please use your influence now to help improve the lack of management.”

During the emergency closure, which was in effect from Aug. 10 to Sept. 16, the sand and bluffs were closed to the public. The border was the beach access stairs to the north, the concrete wall along the boardwalk to the east, and a plastic barrier to the south about 25 feet from the end of the metal railing along Boomer Beach. The trailhead to Boomer Beach was left open for public access.

Volunteer docents and a ranger were at the site to help enforce the closure.

Docent Elena Tillman called it “the crisis situation at Point La Jolla,” where “there has been such severe human harassment of these sea lions.” The emergency closure worked “very well,” she said, but now that the closure is not in effect, there is no management plan.

Ahead of the area’s September reopening, San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, sent a notice to community leaders indicating the city would follow up with more closures in subsequent pupping seasons. However, he said there would be time and opportunities for public feedback. The effort would involve a permit for which the city has not yet applied.

“The rookery’s square footage is tiny compared to the miles of coastline for beach-goers … people can literally go anywhere else,” Tillman said. She asked the commission to “act swiftly” when presented with the permit application.

LJCPA also signs on to a letter asking the city of San Diego to preserve access to adjacent Boomer Beach.

Oct. 9, 2021

Docent Carol Archibald argued that because of the pups’ needs, the closure should be six months.

Docent and La Jolla resident Jonathan Harrison said that since the emergency closure lapsed, “the harassment and provocation returned crueler than ever and our counts of sea lion pups since then have shown a decline. … There is an imperative for the commission to act now.”

After the meeting, Sierra Club San Diego chapter director Richard Miller said, “We strongly advise the city to agree to another emergency closure, due to increasing numbers of visitors and the lack of ranger supervision, until a coastal development plan is agreed.”

LaCava’s policy director, Brian Elliott, said the city sets a 180-day (approximately six-month) deadline for follow-up whenever an emergency coastal development permit is issued — such as with the late-summer Point La Jolla closure — so it can address any future recommendations.

“That work is still in process,” Elliott said. He added that staff hopes to have something by early January for the community to review.

“Councilman LaCava wants to go to the community with those details when those details are available,” he said.

Responding to the comments at the meeting, commissioners who have seen the area firsthand wondered whether they could be a little more involved.

Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh called people interacting with and touching the sea lions “a pervasive issue” and “quite disturbing.”

Vice Chairwoman Donne Brownsey said “people want to have this wildlife experience, not realizing they are endangering these creatures.”

In other areas, she said, there are telescopes to provide a viewing experience without getting too close. “Maybe that’s an idea to help the city come up with alternatives, but there has to be roping off or fences. Otherwise, people are going to continue to engage in this behavior,” she said.

Commissioner Zahirah Mann said she was “really concerned with what is happening there” and questioned the city’s timeline for a permit application. “This issue is pressing now, so what are the other options beyond waiting for the city to file a permit application?”

Karl Schwing, the commission’s district director for the San Diego Coast and South Coast, said: “At this point, we think the city is in the best position to make a difference here, and we have been working with the city on bringing forward an application to manage the situation with a seasonal closure and some other steps. We have urged them to do that quickly.”

Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth said the situation at Point La Jolla “is out of control” and that the commission “needs to get creative” in dedicating resources such as a ranger to enforce the rules.

He said the city and the Coastal Commission need to work together and don’t independently have the ability to execute a seasonal closure.

“Political pressure needs to come to bear at the city,” Ainsworth said. “This is a statewide and regional issue; this is not just a resource there in that area. ... These areas become more and more popular and these conflicts continue. You need robust systems and rules and management measures put in place. Our challenge is to work with the city to move this along as quickly as possible.”

Elliott said city staff is working with the Coastal Commission and interested parties on what to propose. “It is being actively worked on and discussed,” he said. ◆