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Consider the food chain when considering seals

by Mitch Thrower

Co-Founder, The Active Network

Chairman, La Jolla Foundation

As a 17-year resident of La Jolla, I’ve watched the seal controversy closely. Or I should say, I’ve smelled it.

I think that the majority of the people who have fought to keep the seals in Children’s Pool obviously don’t live there, or anywhere nearby. That, or their sense of smell has been burned out by all the Magic Markers used to create the “Keep the Seals!” signs. I jest.

I love seals, but in this case the overpopulated seal sanctuary in La Jolla is woefully misplaced and the fervent welcome and protection from some is based on a misunderstanding of the situation and the risks.

With increasing regret, I have watched the seals take over the children’s protected pool left by Ellen Browning Scripps to the children of the world. I know the I-want-the-seals-here-now advocates with enough persistence, may be able to legally argue their way out of any trust or contract because with enough money and support you can prevail in almost any public argument. Unfortunately, after doing so much for San Diego, Ellen passed away in 1932 at the age of 95, so she really can’t argue with them. But that does not mean what they so passionately argue is right. We’re smarter than that, aren’t we?

It’s pretty clear that the spirit and intent of Ellen’s agreement was that the children could continue to SWIM in the pool, no matter what the seal advocates argue. Just read the trust. It’s online. I still remember fondly the smiles years ago in the children’s faces and the laughs of joy I could hear from the children who love the ocean as I ran by Children’s Pool. But since then, I’ve seen the seal population expand, slowly but inexorably and more aggressively, and now seals and sea lions are starting to take over into the La Jolla Cove. The smell is spreading.

That’s right, just come visit to see that the seals and sea lions are now taking over the rocks and beach of the La Jolla Cove. Tourists cluster around them, blissfully unaware that they are looking at and supporting creatures whose overpopulation and sanctuary like protection along formerly our most popular swimming beaches will endanger the humans who enjoyed swimming in the cove and may well, again someday, rob someone of a father, a mother, a son and a daughter because of the predators they attract.

Living just up the hill from the Cove, I see and smell more and more of them every month. And when watching the ocean, it’s clear that seals are more frequently spotted near the human swimmers. When I run past the seals at Children’s Pool, I gag for several minutes when I inhale the horrible stench that now wafts into the houses, apartments and lives of the thousands of residents who live upwind of this madness. I love the San Diego Zoo, but I don’t want to live in it.

I’ve been increasingly scared to swim in the La Jolla waters for several reasons. For starters, I’ve researched the bacteria and viruses that seals carry and transmit to humans. Just Google it. You’ll find extensive citations about the serious illnesses that humans can get from the contamination from seal fecal matter and other viruses and waste from the seal population. It can impact humans for miles north and south of a seal colony. And according to marine researchers, there are now hundreds of seals down there, and they have eaten all the fish. Yes, remember those beautiful goldfish that the tourists used to love to snorkel with? Almost all gone. Or the small fish that would swim near the top of the water with the swimmers and snorkelers? Gone.

I’ve been in the water, the fish are disappearing, but we don’t see anyone out there with a petition to save the fish. Just as the seals have preyed upon these welcome former inhabitants of the cove, the growing seal population will attract a universally unwelcome predator. Remember the sharks that starred in movies or made tragic headlines? They’re baaaaaack. Or soon to be. It’s a universal law — predators find their bait.

Experts agree — seals attract great white sharks. Across the web you see warnings “Do not swim, snorkel or surf near seals.” And so, have we gone mad? We’ve opened a great white bait shop in the middle of the most populated swimming, surfing and snorkeling areas in the world. Most surfers and many swimmers don a black wetsuit, resembling, you guessed it — a seal. It only makes sense that where our legislators open a seafood restaurant, hungry predators will show up for lunch.

If you keep an eye out when walking on local beaches or past what has become the Seals Pool, you may catch a glimpse of a half-eaten seal carcass. I’ve seen them. So have my friends. You can check out some of these photos and the increasing reports over the past few years of great white spotting. Click www.sharkresearchcommittee.com, a site that track shark sightings along our coasts.

I am not mad at the people who love the seals and hang out with signs and petitions near Children’s Pool. I am, however very disappointed in the legislative groups that are missing the sharp toothed point: The decision to keep the seals will increasingly threaten human life and continue to violate our rights to breathe clean non-choke-me-zoo-like air where we live.

Based on what I’ve learned about the loss of a fantastic triathlete, father and husband David Martin to a great white shark in June 2008, the seals were a factor, After all, the closest colony, is, yep — La Jolla. And with a 25-mile colony range, the coastlines 25 miles north and 25 miles south are less safe than they were before the seal population explosion in La Jolla.

When David Martin was fatally attacked, common sense dictates that it was likely a morning shark-hunt-seal chase gone bad — because that morning, a seal beached itself just before the attack. Months before that attack, I had published on my blog, several shark swimming warnings letting people know not to swim at dawn or dusk, because divers were increasingly spotting great whites in the area.

The Los Angeles Times contacted me after the attack for a quote because of my prediction online of an impending shark attack. This was one prediction I never wanted to be right about. Nor do I want to be right about what I see as an inevitable reprise. The La Jolla Cove is a no-boat, recreational reserve that has become one of the world’s largest open water swimming and snorkeling area. And from Pacific Beach to Encinitas, millions of people enjoy San Diego’s coastline.

We can be sure that there are sound arguments from the seal colony’s self-elected custodians, and that there are details of this debate that I have missed, but this letter is an appeal to common sense. As a disclaimer, I’m not a seal researcher or a great white expert and I know that more people die from dog bites each year than shark attacks. Even so, as a San Diego entrepreneur who lives on the front lines of this controversy, I regrettably predict that this decision to keep the seals here stinking up one of the most beautiful places on earth will directly cause another shark attack on a human, or two.

It could be tomorrow, it could be in 10 years. I pray I’m wrong, but if I’m right, I’ll bet the folks involved in making the decision to surrender our beautiful beaches from our children to the seals — undeniably knowing and understanding that their decision caused a substantial increased risk to swimmers, surfers and to our children — will be hearing from the lawyers of the families of the deceased.

One of the privileges of making it to the top of the food chain should be our legislators’ commitment to do everything they can to keep us there.