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Look, but don’t touch! Rules for tidepooling in La Jolla not well known, says Wildcoast

La Jolla has at its fingertips miles of coastline complete with beaches and tidepools that are visited in large numbers daily. However, Zach Plopper of WildCoast argues that just because we can reach out and touch marine life, doesn’t mean we should.

“The general rule all people visiting these areas should abide by is to look and not touch,” he said. “There is a real threat in day-to-day tidepooling and people taking things.”

He added that is particularly the case within La Jolla’s three state-regulated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) — acres in the ocean that end at the beach.

La Jolla’s MPAs include: San Diego Scripps MPA, which goes from Scripps Pier north to Black’s Beach, and includes the tidepooling area and the rocky area just north of Scripps Pier; Matlahuayl Reserve that goes from the western edge of La Jolla Cove, aka Point La Jolla, up to Scripps Pier, and includes the Cove and La Jolla Shores; and South La Jolla MPA, which spans the beach at Palomar Street down to Diamond Street and its adjacent, offshore MPA (not affected by tidepooling and beach activities). These areas are also classified as a State Marine Reserves, and to take, damage, injure or possess any marine resource (living, geological or cultural) is prohibited.

A family looks at what was retrieved from the tidepools at La Jolla Cove — against the advice of Wildcoast.
A family looks at what was retrieved from the tidepools at La Jolla Cove — against the advice of Wildcoast.

Citing ignorance on the part of the beach-goers, Plopper said he has seen people take octopus from the reef or pick up starfish from tidepools.

“A lot of these people are out-of-towners who don’t know what the rules are. They see these wonderful areas and they want to touch everything,” he said, adding people tend to think small.

“The thought is ‘I’m just one person taking one rock,’ but considering hundreds of people are there a day during the summer, if they all thought that, it would add up to a lot of missing rocks,” he said.

Volker Hoehne, a diver of 35 years and chair of the San Diego Council of Divers, offered the starfish as an example of a creature for whom excessive contact can have a direct impact. “They have a lot of little legs on the bottom that act like suction cups. Every time someone picks up a starfish, a few of those suction cups break off. Sure they grow back, but if you have a couple hundred people tidepooling every day, that starfish is going to lose its suction cups and die,” he said. “It becomes a case of loving the environment to death.”

Plopper added that continued disruption to MPAs could have an ecological impact for the invertebrates and smaller fish species that call those intertidal zones home.

“When you start moving their habitat around, it’s essentially like taking away sections of your home,” he said. “We think that a small rock might not have any ecological value, but it does. It’s part of a habitat for smaller marine wildlife that is critical to the food web and the ecosystem. Removing the base can degrade an entire ecosystem.”

The intertidal zones — areas between the high tide and low tide marks on the seashore — are deceptively delicate, Hoehne added.

“We think ‘it’s nature, it’s tough, it can withstand the waves crashing on it,’ but it’s actually very delicate. If we limit our impact, the ecosystem will improve and we will eventually have more to see,” he said. “A healthy ecosystem is incredibly diverse.”

Plopper said allowing people to walk through a gate onto the bluffs at La Jolla Cove where sea lions rest — while separating people from hauled-out seals with a guideline rope and beach closure at Children’s Pool — sends a mixed message.

“People can get close to the seals and sea lions, which they shouldn’t be doing, and that sends the wrong message as to what’s allowed,” he said. “Marine wildlife is something we need to respect and maintain our distance from and leave as is, so it can be enjoyed for generations to come.”

In the meantime, Plopper and Hoehne advocate for taking photos as the best way to remember La Jolla’s natural beauty.

“We also want people to, in a constructive and friendly way, approach others and let them know this is an important marine habitat that they could impact (if they were to disturb or take anything),” Plopper said.

Additionally, he points out, violating the rules of a MPA is a punishable offense.

“Tell people to be aware that if a lifeguard or game warden witness the taking of a marine resource, the culprit can be ticketed,” he said. “Current regulation states that a MPA violation is a misdemeanor and can end up costing thousands of dollars. Wildcoast is working on legislation to change this so violators can be cited with a misdemeanor or an infraction, depending on the severity of their crime. An infraction would be settled in traffic court and be a lesser fine.”

Hoehne said if someone wants to collect seashells or rocks, there are beaches outside La Jolla where such is allowed.

■ More information on tidepooling at nps.gov and about MPAs at dfg.ca.gov/m/MPA