La Jolla beach closure? Next harbor seal pupping season starts Sunday, Dec. 15

By Ashley Mackin

As the first day of harbor seal pupping season approaches (Dec. 15), so does a decision by the San Diego City Planning Commission regarding the seasonal closure of Children’s Pool (aka Casa Beach) during the pupping season.

On Dec. 12, the Planning Commission will discuss an amendment to the Local Coastal Program and a Municipal Code amendment that would make it illegal for any person to be on the Children’s Pool beach — starting from the lower stairs to the beach beginning with the second landing — from Dec. 15 to May 15. Here’s a recap of developments leading to this point that have occurred this year:

Closing the beach

In September, the City of San Diego’s Planning Commission voted 4-2 to recommend that the city council adopt a proposed ordinance that would close the beach at Children’s Pool to all human access during the pupping season. Also being considered is a designation making the Children’s Pool an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA).

However, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) sent a letter to the city council and Interim Mayor Todd Gloria that states CCC staff is “supportive of the city’s proposal to impose seasonal restrictions, including full beach closure to the public during the pupping season,” but does not support the EHSA designation.

“Within areas designated as ESHA, only resource-dependent uses are allowed, which would preclude many activities normally associated with the beach, including, but not limited to sunbathing, accessing the water, passive recreational uses and possible repair/maintenance of the breakwater,” the letter states. “Under the Coastal Act, marine mammal protection and maximum public access opportunities are both mandated.”

Because the CCC makes the final decision, it sent suggested revisions back to the Planning Commission for review and adoption. Should the Planning Commission approve the CCC revisions, the proposal would move to the city council for a vote in early 2014, before ultimately going back to the CCC.

For this year’s pupping season, District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner’s office said the city will maintain “the status quo” at Children’s Pool. The nighttime beach closure implemented earlier this year will not be enforced, and human access is allowed down to the barrier rope.

The barrier rope

In keeping with the status quo, the 152-foot-long rope designed to keep people at a distance from the harbor seals will remain up year-round. As a condition to its year-round installation, the CCC required the implementation of a monitoring plan.

Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner requested, during his term, that the CCC allow the use of the Seal Cam, a 24/7 web-streaming camera that was installed on the old Children’s Pool lifeguard tower, as a means of meeting the terms of the monitoring plan. On May 14, the Coastal Commission issued a notice of approval, saying that the Seal Cam is an acceptable way to record beach activity and meet the terms of the monitoring plan.

However, in preparation for the lifeguard tower construction, the Seal Cam was taken down Aug. 1 and stored in a remote location until it can be reinstalled.

CCC Coastal Program Analyst Kanani Brown said the Seal Cam, in terms of meeting monitoring plan requirements, would be considered a supplementary monitoring system to assist with the park ranger stationed at Children’s Pool. The ranger’s observations, she said, also meet the requirements of the monitoring plan, and that the conditions for the year-round rope are being met.

Fate of the Seal Cam

At press time, Sara Wan of the Western Alliance for Nature (WAN) Conservancy, which paid for the installation of the Seal Cam, had not returned phone messages asking when the camera might be reinstalled and when. The $50,000 for operations and monitoring of the Seal Cam Filner incorporated into the fiscal year 2013-2014 budget has since been re-allocated.

According to the fiscal year 2014 adopted budget, issued in November, the city is redirecting the Seal Cam funds to “support the permitting requests to close the Children’s Pool during the seal pupping season.” Jihad Sleiman, the city project manager overseeing construction of the new lifeguard tower at Children’s Pool, said he has not yet been directed to reinstall the camera on the new tower or an adjacent structure.