By Pat ShermanDespite a fervent plea by District 1 San Diego City Councilmember Sherri Lightner to preserve shared beach access at Children’s Pool during the seals’ winter pupping season, the council ultimately voted 6-3 to prohibit human access to the beach during pupping season (Dec. 15-May 15).
Voting with Lightner Feb. 24 were council representatives Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman.
“I’m concerned that we are drawing a line in the sand we do not need,” Lightner argued, stating her belief that the seals are already protected by a year-round guideline rope and oversight by a park ranger stationed there.
“Seals are not an endangered or even threatened species,” Lightner stressed, adding that she believes a negative declaration (basic environmental document) did not adequately address potential impacts of the closure on other marine resources in the immediate vicinity — including fish populations that have been depleted due to the proliferation of marine mammals.
Lightner noted that Children’s Pool and its protective seawall were funded, built and entrusted to the City of San Diego in the 1930s by La Jolla Philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps as a bathing pool for children.
“I can’t imagine that anyone believed seals would eventually occupy the area and people would not be allowed to use it,” she said.
However, District 9 Councilmember Marti Emerald noted the council’s nearly unanimous vote in 2010 to protect seals by installing a year-round guideline rope, which, according to footage of people touching seals presented during the meeting, she said, hasn’t worked.
“The state legislature granted the city the authority to make some decisions about this beach,” Emerald said. “They said just because a very generous member of the community included this in a trust 80 years ago doesn’t mean that the city has to continue along that vein — especially as times and circumstances change.
“This is not just a La Jolla issue,” Emerald added. “It has become abundantly clear over the years that this tiny piece of beach with these harbor seals has become a regional treasure. … I have abundant respect and affection for my colleague and friend, Ms. Lightner, but on this issue I have to part company.”
In the end, Lightner’s motion to reject city staff’s recommendation to close the beach was voted down, and a motion by Emerald to accept staff’s recommendation was accepted. Several amendments suggested by Lightner also were rejected.
“We gave preliminary approval to this very issue four years ago,” Emerald said. “It was held up by then mayor (Jerry) Sanders, who wouldn’t petition the coastal commission as this council requested, and now it’s back here before us. … I believe the community is judged by the way it treats the least of our citizens and how we show reverence and respect for wildlife.”
Before being adopted, the proposed beach closure — which includes amendments to the La Jolla Community Plan — must come before the California Coastal Commission for approval, likely sometime in August.
In the meantime, Lightner said she is working to address the “explosion” in seal and sea lion populations off the La Jolla coast through the creation of a comprehensive coastal management plan (for which she has requested city funding). Lightner said the plan would more effectively address these and related issues along the entire San Diego coastline.
Lightner said the marine mammals are causing “a flood of health and public safety issues, ranging from foul odors and poor water quality to shark sightings, human conflict and blocked access to our public beaches.
“Let’s wait for the results (of the plan), and then look at the objective facts to determine how we’re going to proceed with balancing the needs of people, marine mammals and other coastal sea life,” she pleaded. “What we don’t want are unnecessary or heavily restrictive rules and regulations, or narrowly targeted, piecemeal community plan amendments such as those before you today.”
City advisory groups such as La Jolla Parks and Beaches, Inc. and the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) have repeatedly opposed closing Children’s Pool beach.
Jim Fitzgerald, a LJCPA trustee who broke ranks with his board colleagues to support the closure, noted that the seals are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
“I had hoped, and I think it’s a hope that was shared on both sides of the issue … that the visual cue represented by the extended guideline rope would have been sufficient to discourage and prevent the unacceptable and unfortunate behavior towards the seals,” he said. “Unfortunately, the visual testimony you’ve seen here today is extremely discouraging. I’m going to ask you to just believe your own eyes. Harassment of the seals and the seal pups — especially during pupping season — continues.
“Some of this harassment and these disturbances are committed out of ignorance, but others, regrettably, are committed out of malice,” Fitzgerald said.
On Jan. 16, the San Diego Planning Commission voted to limit access at Children’s Pool, though not to close the beach entirely.
Similarly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service — which is tasked with implementing the MMPA and helping conserve marine mammal populations — sent a letter to the San Diego City Council Jan. 2 stating its belief that a complete closure of Children’s Pool beach is not necessary to protect harbor seals from MMPA violations.
“The MMPA does not require that beaches be closed, or that people maintain any specific distance from the animals,” the letter states. “Rather, the MMPA generally prohibits the harassment, hunting, capturing or killing of marine mammals.”
The MMPA defines harassment as “acts of pursuit, torment or annoyance that have the potential to injure the animals or disrupt natural behavior.”
The nearly four-hour City Council hearing grew contentious at several junctures, resulting in a woman being ejected from council chambers after repeatedly disrupting proceedings.
At one point, Emerald referenced a video of beach access advocate and diver John Leek climbing over the railing at the tip of the Children’s Pool seawall, onto a boulder, and executing what appeared to be a reverse cannonball (view footage
here). The video, filmed last weekend by seal advocate and attorney Bryan Pease, shows startled seals reacting by scurrying into the water, or “flushing,” which is considered harassment under the MMPA.
In response, Emerald initially suggested amending city staff’s recommendation to also make it unlawful for people to be on any land or rocks touching the seawall.
“That means no cannonball jumps to flush these seals,” she said.
“I did not cannonball; I tripped and fell!” Leek erupted, after which he left council chambers.
In response to reports of stillborn pups at Children’s Pool, and those being abandoned and left to die by frightened and harassed mother seals, Councilmember Scott Sherman — who seconded Lightner’s failed motion — asked whether there have been studies conducted on pup mortality at Children’s Pool.
“I heard somebody talking about a 50 percent mortality (rate) in the first year for harbor seals in nature,” Sherman said. “Is there anything to show that it’s higher at the Children’s Pool?”
A city staffer responded that they weren’t aware of any such studies, and that such statistics weren’t considered in analysis used to justify closure.
Sherman also requested an accounting of the ranger’s duties at the Children’s Pool.
“I’ve not seen anybody standing there saying, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be standing so close to the seals,’ ” Sherman said. “What does our staff do?”
Children’s Pool ranger Richard Belesky replied that his job is to “explain and enforce city policy and to keep the peace.
“I’m not necessarily a seal guard,” he said. “I’m the only ranger assigned. I work six hours a day at the most.”
“Sounds like you might need a little more help down there,” Sherman suggested.