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City Council votes to replace rope barrier to protect seals

Seal advocates won the latest round in the back-and-forth battle over harbor seals at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool, as the City Council voted 7 to 1 on April 18 to reinstate the rope barrier separating humans from harbor seals until the end of the pupping season May 1.

City Council President Scott Peters, representing La Jolla, cast the lone dissenting vote.

The rope barrier will be kept kept up at Children’s Pool this year until May 1, and put up annually during seal pupping season between Jan. 1 and May 1.

Restoring the rope barrier was recommended April 5 by 4 to 0 vote of the City Council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee. The rope barrier, which was on the City Council’s consent calendar, was pulled for further action.

During an hour-long discussion of the issue, Debbie Beacham and other opponents of the rope barrier gave an organized presentation arguing Casa Beach is not essential for the marine mammals’ survival, that their population is spilling over onto surrounding beaches and that a rising number of seals lure sharks.

Those in favor of restoring the rope barrier countered the move is necessary to safeguard seal mothers and their pups, protecting them from unwanted human contact during the time of year when they are most vulnerable. Pups can perish if they become separated from their mothers.

Dorota Valli, a Rake-A-Line program volunteer at Children’s Pool who monitors the pool to ensure seals are not disturbed by humans, gave a video presentation showing harbor seals at Children’s Pool being flushed into the water by people walking too close to them.

Noting it was a compromise, City Councilwoman Donna Frye made the motion to reinstate the rope barrier at Children’s Pool in perpetuity between Jan. 1 and May 1.

“I certainly understand the passion on both sides,” said Frye. “The motion might not be supported by the folks who would like to have no barrier, as opposed to those who would like to have a year-round barrier. ... I hope this will address some of the issues that we are dealing with. I also hope, in the future, that humans could be a little bit more respectful, not only with the seals, but with one another.”

“I won’t support the motion,” said Peters. “I don’t believe there’s an inability for seals and humans to co-exist. What you clearly saw in those videos was bad human behavior on both sides. We are under a court order to clean up Children’s Pool. It’s quite contaminated as a result of having so many seals there.”

Assistant City Attorney Karen Heumann mentioned that the court order is stayed, since the city is appealing that decision.

Prior to the April 18 meeting, City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, the natural resources committee member who recommended restoring the rope barrier, said reinstating it is the appropriate thing to do.

“We need to protect the seals during pupping season,” he said. “This seems like a logical and rational approach. It’s important to take action.”

City Councilwoman Toni Atkins concurred.

“This is going to be an ongoing, huge financial commitment for the city,” she wrote in an e-mail, “but we should protect the seals. Shared use is very difficult, as we’ve seen in the past. I’d like to see the rope up as frequently as possible, especially during the pupping season.”

In September 2004, the San Diego City Council voted 5-3 to study the feasibility of spending as much as $500,000 to excavate and move sand contaminated by seal waste at Children’s Pool in an attempt to restore the beach to shared use by humans and seals. As part of that decision, the council also ordered removal of the rope barrier that separated the two species since 1999.

In 1997, Children’s Pool was closed to human contact due to high bacterial coliform counts from built-up seal waste. That restriction has since been altered to allow human use of the beach and contact with the water. Signs, however, still warn of the potential dangers presented by unclean waters.

Federal authorities have assigned an enforcement officer to ensure marine mammals are not harassed.

The rope barrier at Children’s Pool is a cost-effective alternative to policing the area, said Michelle Zetwo, local enforcement officer for the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“There are no costs associated with it,” she pointed out. “My experience with the rope barrier has been that it’s a good management tool to keep the public a safe distance from the seals, so there’s less chance of any harassment issues.”

Zetwo said the federal agency lacks staff and other resources necessary to adequately patrol Children’s Pool.

“It’s a well-visited site,” she said, “and we don’t have the resources to be down there all the time, though we do investigations (of alleged incidents) as we can.”

Peters believes most problems at Children’s Pool don’t involve seal-human interaction.

“I still think most of the abuse that happens in Children’s Pool is people versus people, and not harassment of seals,” he said. “It’s an emotional issue.”

Samir Mahmalji, project officer for the Parks and Recreation Department, said the city is presently going through