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Seal Wars

The city has been ordered to do a full-blown environmental impact report on a controversial proposal to dredge the beach inlet known as Children’s Pool. The dredging is an attempt to flush out the buildup of contaminated sand, creating a beach both humans and harbor seals could enjoy.

Hanging in the balance is the city’s appeal of Judge William Pate’s order last year requiring Children’s Pool to be restored to its 1941 condition, when there were fewer seals and less beach, via sand removal. That issue is not likely to be settled until early 2007.

The beach was closed to humans in September 1997 due to high bacterial coliform counts from accumulated seal waste. That prohibition was later replaced with signs warning beach users of the contaminaton.

Cost estimates to dredge Children’s Pool range from $250,000 to $500,000.

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Seal supporters claimed a victory when the City Council voted 7 to 1 on April 18 to restore the rope barrier physically separating people from pinnipeds at Children’s Pool between Jan. 1 and May 1 of 2007 during the next seal pupping season.

City Council President Scott Peters, who has championed shared use of Children’s Pool by humans and seals, favors environmental studies for the wading pool that was created in 1931 with a $60,000 donation by La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Brown Scripps.

“Considering the city is under a court order to restore the Children’s Pool to its 1941 condition by removing sand,” said Peters, “Park & Rec and Development Services are taking appropriate action by obtaining appropriate permits from the state and federal government. The city is being environmentally responsible by performing the appropriate level of review, which in this case is an environmental impact report.”

Peters also expressed a favorable view of the rope barrier, a measure he initially opposed. “It appears the pupping season rope barrier has proven to be an effective tool of compromise between seal supporters and supporters of public beach access.”

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The ongoing war of words continues at the beach between seal activists and those who are calling for more beach access. The level of intensity of disagreements, however, varies.

Police and lifeguards say Children’s Pool, which has a long history of altercations between humans over the seals there, was mostly uneventful this summer.

“We had two incidents,” said San Diego police Capt. Boyd Long, “both involving pro-seal and pro-beach disputes. Both were minor.”

In one case, said Boyd, someone taking photos at the beach had the camera pushed into his face by someone who didn’t want their picture taken. The other altercation involved a verbal exchange that did not become physical.

“We believe it’s been very peaceful,” said Long, “and we want to keep it that way.”

Long said the catalyst that generally leads to heated exchanges is when people believing they’re protecting the seals by drawing a line in the sand confront those who cross that line, culminating in verbal disputes with the potential to escalate into physical altercations.

Dave Rains of the San Diego Lifeguard Service agreed seal matters this summer rarely got out of hand.

“It seems to be relatively consistent,” he said.

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Raines said people can get animated during verbal dicussions and, every now and then, that passion manifests itself in pushing matches.

Seal activists who take turns raking a line into the sand have a different take on the state of relations between the two factions.

“I was spat on,” said Rake-A-Line volunteer Natasha Starkovsky. “I never had any words with the person; they just walked by and spat. Mostly, it’s men who get aggressive with us. They need to learn to control their temper and manage their anger. I’m starting to fear for my safety.”

Starkovsky said volunteers are non-confrontational though she believes tensions are growing at the beach.

“We don’t get aggressive,” she said. “It’s the city’s responsibility to come in at this point and do something,” she said. “It’s unconscionable, letting this drag on. There needs to be a permanent decision on whether that piece of land is going to be a beach for children, or a beach for children and adults to observe seals.”

Patrick Lee Hord is the co-founder of Friends of La Jolla Seals, a non-profit group that created a seal docent program at the beach. He said shared-use is not what the battle over Children’s Pool is all about.

“It’s just a control issue,” Hord said. “Some people feel they have a God-given right to be able to use the Earth’s natural resources any way they want to.”

Kent Trego, an outspoken beach-access advocate at Children’s Pool, believes co-existence at Children’s Pool between the two- and four-legged species is not only possible, but inevitable.

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“It’s the only alternative,” Trego said. “The animals aren’t going anywhere. Most of them are going to stay in the area. You can’t chase them away. And, it’s also clear they’re not going to close the beach, and they’re not going to allow public access to that beach to be denied. Shared use is a reality. Get used to it.”

Pro-beach access La Jollan Don Perry has been swimming and snorkeling regularly at Children’s Pool.

“What we’re doing is trying to set a good example of how to use it responsibly,” he said.

Wildlife biologist Renee Owens contends co-existence between seals and humans at the pool is not achievable.

“Keep in mind, it’s a breeding rookery,” she said, “and it’s a wild species.”

Owens said seals haul out for a number of reasons: to give birth, raise pups, for molting and to maintain the health of their immune systems.

“The health of seals is directly related to how long they haul out,” she said. “Harassment from humans causes significant reduction in haul-out durations. To say that seals don’t look stressed, that they’re not bothered by our presence, that’s purely anthropomorphic.”