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Onset of beach season awakens seal concerns

Things are heating up with harbor seal pupping season nearly over and competing lawsuits both for and against the presence of pinnipeds at the Children’s Pool, the contentious parcel of land where swimmers and nature lovers continue to butt heads over beach use.

The rope barrier that once physically separated humans from seals has been down since last year when the City Council voted to consider moving sand from the beach in an attempt to restore shared use between seals and humans.

Children’s Pool has been a point of contention since 1997, when the seals population there sharply increased and their waste fouled the water, making it unsafe for human contact. The crescent-shaped breakwater that decreases wave action at the small beach was built in 1931 with a grant from La Jolla matriarch Ellen Browning Scripps. She donated it to the community as a safe haven for children to learn how to swim.

Since the rope barrier has come down, seal sympathizers have been drawing lines in the sand with rakes and other materials, attempting to dissuade people from getting too close to the animals and disturbing them, especially during pupping season. Harassment of seals is forbidden by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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Joe Cordaro, wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Long Beach, said that though the rope barrier is down, there is a recommended safe distance that humans should observe to avoid harassing pinnipeds.

“Our official stance with all rookeries is that people should not get closer than 100 feet on land, and 100 yards in the water, when viewing seals,” said Cordaro, “though we realize Children’s Pool is kind of a unique situation, where the beach may not be 10 feet from the high-tide line to the wall. We recommend people not get closer than 50 feet to seals at Children’s Pool.”

Some want to see the rope barrier back up, acting as a visual cue as to how much distance humans should keep from the animals.

“We do recommend,” Cordaro said, “that some sort of barrier be erected to keep people back.”

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However, Cordaro said, rules specifying what exactly constitutes harassment of seals depends on the specific situation.

“If someone goes up to the animal and the animal does not react, that person is not in violation,” he said. “If someone does something 50 feet away from the animal, and the animal reacts, that’s a violation. It all depends on how the individual animal reacts to the individual person.”

Cordaro said there will always be confrontations at Children’s Pool as long as people are mingling with seals. To avoid such confrontations, a Fisheries enforcement officer has been stationed at the pool. There is also a surveillance camera at the pool that can be used to document seal-human confrontations.

“The feeling is,” Cordaro said, “if the public knows they’re being watched down there via a camera and an enforcement officer, that may act as a means of preventing them from interacting with the seals.”

April Penera, deputy director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said the seal issue is not likely to be revisted by the City Council before the end of 2005 or early 2006.

“We are getting ready to submit biology reports and technical information to the Development Services Department,” Penera said. “We’ve been told we need a site development permit and a coastal permit. That will take six to eight months. If the site development and coastal permits are ready to go, it would go to the City Council the beginning of next year. ...”

If all goes well, said Penera, the City Council would likely vote to approve a sand-removal project early next year. The project would then be put out to bid and a contractor hired.

“Of course,” said Penera, “the project still has to get funding. If they could get the funding for the project, we would look to start in September right after summer 2006.”

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Penera said that moving sand at Children’s Pool is simple. “From a construction point of view, there aren’t a lot of cubic yards of sand to be moved. ... We would gradually remove the sand from one side of the breakwater to the other, and let the tide take it out so it’s a natural progression. Hopefully, it would result in the pool being a little cleaner and having a little less beach and a little more pool, so there would be a little more balance of uses.”

Clif Williams, chief of staff for City Councilman Scott Peters, said the councilman had hoped to get the seal issue back before the council sometime this summer, but the environmental review process is taking longer than expected.

Williams said it still might be possible to do the sand moving earlier than fall 2006, perhaps in spring after the seal pupping season, which ends at the end of April.

“We will have to work with National Marine Fisheries,” he said.

Williams applauded use of the camera. “The camera will give us an accurate, day-to-day record of what happens at Children’s Pool. We’ve had instances of malicious seal harassment reported that we found to be untrue. The surveillance camera is there to keep everybody honest. Hopefully, it will keep everybody on their best behavior down there.”

La Jolla attorney Paul Kennerson, on behalf of Valerie O’Sullivan, one of nine swimmers who were cited two years ago for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act during a swim to Children’s