New collaborative effort to tackle La Jolla Cove stench in the works

The public is urged to share ideas during sea lion forum by e-mailing:

During its April 9 meeting, La Jolla Town Council (LJTC) voted unanimously to have its president, Steve Haskins, meet with leaders of other local organizations to formulate a proposal for eliminating the stench at La Jolla Cove, the source of which most people now agree is excrement from the growing sea lion colony there.

The public is asked to e-mail input to Haskins in the coming weeks at, which he will share with leaders of the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA), La Jolla Village Merchants Association (LJVMA) and other stakeholder groups.

Any solution ironed out between the groups will be brought back to Town Council trustees for discussion at the group’s next meeting, 5 p.m. Thursday, May 7 at La Jolla Rec Center.

The collaborative concept was introduced during the meeting’s sea lion forum by restaurateur George Hauer of George’s at the Cove (perched just above La Jolla Cove on Prospect Street). Hauer said the smell is so nauseating at times, he dreads coming to work to field customers’ comments about it.

Hauer, part of an ongoing lawsuit against the City of San Diego filed by business owners seeking a solution to the problem, suggested the working group include representatives from organizations like the San Diego Tourism Authority and the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association.

“What we need is a collective,” Hauer said. “Get the heads of these groups into a meeting with the politicians to go ahead and press our case.”

The forum also included presentations by marine wildlife specialists, including Mark Lowry with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who provided information about sea lions’ diet and a population count he conducts annually at the Channel Islands off the California Coast (mostly sea lion pups) — where he contends 99 percent of births occur.

Although Lowry said sea lions often flee humans in the Channel Islands, he agreed with other attendees’ observations that the sea lions at La Jolla Cove no longer appear to be fearful of humans — the likes of which he said he has only witnessed in one other place, the Galapagos Islands (where he posits sea lions have been so excluded from human contact they haven’t learned to fear them).

Asked why NOAA doesn’t study sea lions at La Jolla Cove so that the federal agency has data to help La Jollans devise a deterrent method that abides by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), Lowry said it comes down to funding. “You mean here in La Jolla? These few little animals?” he said. “They’re not going to throw any money at that. I have a hard enough time trying to get money to do what I do.”

Meanwhile, La Jolla Light learned in February that the City of San Diego signed a contract for just shy of $25,000 with Doyle Hanan & Associates to “study and identify potential opportunities for changing the behavior or haul-out conditions of the sea lion colony now expanding along the La Jolla coastline,” and to file a report with the city.

City spokesperson Bill Harris confirmed April 10 that Hanan is now in the process of ascertaining whether La Jolla’s sea lions display “any unique opportunities for behavior change.” Meanwhile, he assured the city will continue spraying biodegradable foam on the bluffs that digests bird guano — another component of the smell.

“It’s our hope there will be a solution that fits all of the many regulatory criteria applicable to this site and situation,” Harris responded, via e-mail. “Depending on the potential solutions to be considered following the Hanan & Associates report, agencies like the Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Coastal Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and others may need to be engaged in an approval process. The work by Hanan & Associates is the critical step toward that effort.”

Lowry said the sea lion population off the La Jolla coast would eventually hit carrying capacity — a point at which there is not enough food to support its numbers. Right now, the food source is very low (which accounts for the current malnourished and dehydrated condition of sea lion pups), though when the ocean cools down, such as during a la niña, the sea lions could likely thrive in even greater numbers.

Privately funded solution?

Longtime diver John Leek suggested La Jollans secure private funding to have the city’s Park & Recreation Department (which oversees La Jolla’s beaches) clean up sea lion waste in a way that complies with state and federal regulations — an idea championed by several others at the meeting.

“You may not get it unless you pay for it or you do it yourself,” Leek said, noting the MMPA allows for an agency acting on behalf of the city, presumably such as the LJTC or LJCPA, to take action to lessen the nuisance created by marine mammals.

Leek noted that San Diego’s Park & Recreation Department oversees beaches, including La Jolla Cove. Despite a request by City Council president Sherri Lightner to have the city’s 11-person Park & Recreation board — which directly advises Park & Rec director Herman Parker — include a member from each city council district, to date it only includes members from six council districts, and none from La Jolla or Council District 1.

Slippery slope of pinniped tourism

Although Lowry said nearly all sea lions are born in the Channel Islands, Leek asked why rescued sea lions are returned to waters off the San Diego coast, instead of the Channel Islands?

Leek noted that the growing eco-tourism of people coming to view seals and their offspring just south of the Cove at the Children’s Pool was used as justification by the California Coastal Commission when it granted the city’s request to close that beach during the seals’ pupping season. Leek and others said they fear this tourism trend could also be used to justify closing the beach at La Jolla Cove.

Under section 109(h) of the MMPA, Leek said he believes an organization such as the LJTC or LJCPA could bypass the city and solve the sea lion issue itself. It reads: “Nothing in this title shall prevent a federal, state or local government official or employee or a person designated under section 112(c) from taking (harassing), in the course of his or her duties as an official, employee or designee, a marine mammal in a humane manner (including euthanasia) if such taking is for A) protection of the welfare of the animal; B) the protection of the public health and welfare or safety; and C) the non-lethal removal of nuisance animals.”

Leek suggested La Jollans band together and hire people “to hassle sea lions off the rocks and beach.”

However, wildlife biologist Renee Owens, another guest presenter, noted the MMPA has its limits. She said people are not allowed to harass sea lions “willy-nilly” or to remove an entire colony.