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Arguments for and against Point La Jolla closure plan continue as April Coastal Commission review nears

Visitors gather to view sea lions hauling out at Point La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Ahead of a planned California Coastal Commission hearing in April on the city of San Diego’s proposed seasonal closure of Point La Jolla, representatives of all sides of the issue aired their concerns and comments to the commission during its three days of online meetings last week.

On March 9, docents from the Sierra Club Seal Society asked for a year-round closure of the area, rather than seasonal, and criticized other terms of the proposed closure. Point La Jolla is a rocky area between La Jolla Cove beach and Boomer Beach where sea lions go on land to rest and give birth.

In the days that followed, other speakers argued for continued access and more scientific study of the area.

The city recently applied for a coastal development permit to close Point La Jolla daily from May 25 to Sept. 15, during much of the sea lion pupping season, which is commonly recognized from June 1 to Oct. 31. The move comes after nearly a year of complaints from sea lion advocates about coastal visitors harassing, and in a few cases harming, the marine mammals and their pups.

The proposed action is similar to the city’s five-week emergency closure last August and September in that it would include posted signs, a K-rail barrier and a chain to cordon off the beach access stairs at the border of Point La Jolla and La Jolla Cove.

But Seal Society docents and others asked for additional restrictions.

Leading off an organized presentation by animal advocates, Paul Emus showed a video documenting what he called “sea lion harassment,” consisting largely of images and video of people touching sea lions that were resting on land, getting close to them for photos or walking past them to access the beach.

Docent Jonathan Harrison of La Jolla said the situation is a “crisis that has become more urgent” with an “unprecedented crush of visitors.” He criticized the city for a lack of a regular ranger presence.

San Diego’s fiscal 2022 budget comes with funding for two more park rangers and a chief ranger, and city spokesman Tim Graham said earlier this month that the city anticipates having a daily ranger presence in the Point La Jolla area by the end of April.

Docents, bodysurfers, swimmers and others have asked for rangers to be stationed at the location to manage crowds. TAKE OUR POLL: Are park rangers necessary at Point La Jolla?

Docent Nathan Brenner asked commissioners to consider “a total closure … of the entire area from May 1 to Oct. 31 and preferably year-round.”

Docent Elena Tillman argued that “if sea lions are present during pupping season, no one should be accessing the area. … It is monkey see, monkey do. Well-intended divers and watermen that walk down to Boomer Beach or to Point La Jolla can attract tourists down in droves.”

Sierra Club Seal Society Chairwoman Robyn Davidoff said: “Keeping people apart from sea lions enhances public safety and aligns with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. ... A year-round closure and ranger program is necessary to keep people and sea lions apart.”

Docent Carol Archibald said the proposed 3½-month closure is “unacceptable” because it doesn’t “meet the biological needs of the animals.” She noted that the nearby Children’s Pool is closed for five months annually to accommodate the harbor seal pupping season.

The proposed Point La Jolla closure area is outlined in red. The blue area is for "ocean access for recreation activities."
The proposed Point La Jolla closure area is outlined in red in this plan submitted by the city of San Diego to the California Coastal Commission. The blue area is for “ocean access for recreation activities,” according to the city.
(City of San Diego)

On the other side of the issue, Volker Hoehne, a member of the San Diego Waterman’s Alliance, said he and other ocean users are concerned about a closure of Point La Jolla and the environmental impact of the sea lions.

On March 11, La Jolla Community Planning Association President Diane Kane continued to push for an environmental impact report to look at the overall ramifications of sea lions being in the area.

“With increasing numbers of sea lions, La Jolla’s coastal and marine ecosystem is under stress,” Kane told commissioners. “Once-healthy tide pools in the haul-out areas are decimated, local fish populations are in decline, the health of the State Marine Reserve kelp forest is suffering, and both shark sightings and water pollution from marine mammal feces are on the rise. Meanwhile, human access to the once-pristine waters of La Jolla Cove is prohibited for months at a time and wildlife/human interaction increasingly ends in conflict.

“The current approach to marine mammal management is failing our ecosystem, and to continue it is folly. The LJCPA urges the CCC to require the preparation of an environmental impact report prior to issuing any further permits for closures at Point La Jolla for sea lion pupping season. The EIR should addresses the cumulative and indirect impacts of established pinniped colonies in La Jolla to provide decision-makers with scientific data and realistic management options that ensure the long-term sustainability of the fragile marine ecology off the La Jolla coast.”

But commissioners, who last year expressed worry about what some called the “out of control” human/sea lion situation at Point La Jolla, asked last week about any quick action they could take to address people getting close to pinnipeds, and they alluded to how their vote might go in April.

Commissioner Dayna Bochco said the panel needs to “move quickly” to “stop this behavior.”

“It’s just time now,” Bochco said. “It’s shocking that people have been this close to wildlife. I’m more concerned with the safety of the wildlife, but I would hate to see someone hurt.”

However, Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth said reviewing the seasonal closure is the “appropriate vehicle to move forward.”

Commission Chairwoman Donne Brownsey said: “I think you are hearing from the commission where we are leaning on this issue, and I hope that will be reflected … on that permit when it comes to us. Because this has gone too far for too long.”

The Coastal Commission next meets April 6-8 online. It isn’t yet known which of those days the Point La Jolla closure will be heard. Learn more at coastal.ca.gov. ◆