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Anti-harassment ordinance presented to City Council

The twisted road to resolution of the situation at Children’s Pool took another turn recently.

A city council subcommittee voted to send a proposal to create a new city ordinance prohibiting people from harassing the seals to the full City Council. The council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee, chaired by councilwoman Donna Frye, voted unanimously on Feb. 21 to ask that the council consider the ordinance.

The debate over the Children’s Pool has gone on for years and grown more complicated as it has made its way through city government and federal courts. The council has voted to advocate shared use of Children’s Pool between humans and the harbor seal colony that has made the beach its home. Since then, San Diego Superior Court Judge William Pate imposed a six-month court order on the city to return the pool to its original condition, which would discourage seals from hauling out by dredging excess sand and restoring the beach’s use as a wading pool.

The court order has been stayed pending an appeal filed by the city in federal court.

The city also recently voted to extend the period during which a rope barrier is placed at Children’s Pool to show people how far they should remain from seals in order to not disturb them during their pupping season.

The seals at Children’s Pool are already protected by federal law. The National Marine Fisheries Service oversees the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits people from engaging in any activity that would disturb the seals or cause them to flush from the beach into the water.

The measure forwarded to the City Council by the Natural Resources and Culture Committee would essentially build the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act into the municipal code by prohibiting humans from being in close proximity to the seals or yelling or throwing objects at them.

How the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s requirement that humans maintain a safe distance from seals fits in with the City Council’s advocacy of shared use at Children’s Pool is not clear. Some activists in favor of returning the pool to its original condition have in recent years taken the sharedpuse doctrine to mean that they can walk onto the beach and use it whenever they want, even when the beach is packed with seals. This has resulted in several incidents in which tourists and locals who have gathered to watch the seals watched in shock as large numbers of seals were flushed into the water by people walking out onto the beach.

The measure forwarded to the City Council by the Natural Resources and Culture Committee would seem to be directed at such demonstrations. The Marine Mammal Protection Act is difficult to enforce in such situations because a federal official must personally witness the violation. The city authorized the placement of a 24-hour video camera at Children’s Pool to help the National Marine Fisheries Service enforce the law, but citations are rare.

Were the law to become a municipal ordinance in San Diego, city police, fire fighters and lifeguards would have the authority to cite people for disturbing the seals. The City Council could take up the measure next week. If it does, it will not be finding any support from City Council President Scott Peters, who represents La Jolla.

Peters said, with the Children’s Pool issue making its way through federal court, he was surprised to hear of a new measure coming before City Council.

“I was disappointed to hear about it,” Peters said.

Peters, who has long advocated shared use at Children’s Pool, said that asking city employees to enforce conduct rules at the beach was a bad idea in a time of scarce resources for the city.

“It seems to me to be a difficult time to take police, fire fighters and lifeguards away from their jobs to look after the La Jolla seals,” Peters said. “As much as anyone loves the seals, we have to ask if we have the resources to dedicate to this.”

The measure will come before the City Council in the coming weeks. To view City Council agendas, visit https://clerkdoc.sannet.gov/Website/city-docket.