Harbor Seals in the Children’s Pool



A Big Dispute Over A Small Beach

Last September the San Diego City Council voted five to three to approve the request to allow city staff to investigate dredging the sand at La Jolla's Children's Pool Beach. This vote was made by 1st district council member Scott Peters in an attempt to reduce the number of harbor seals that use the small pocket beach to rest, reproduce and molt, a behavior also known as "hauling-out." The vote allows the City of San Diego to apply for permits to remove some sand from the beach and also immediately removes a rope that separates the seals and beach visitors. The final approval of the project is left up to the decision of the California Coastal Commission.

In response to the City Council's decision, the San Diego Animal Advocates, the Institute for Animal Rights Law, the International Society and private citizen Marjane Aalam filed a lawsuit against the City of San Diego. The lawsuit, filed in October, requests a preliminary injunction to prevent the city from going forward with the dredging project, claiming it is illegal. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 makes it a violation of Federal Law to disturb, harass, or interfere in any way with the natural behavior of marine mammals. Violators could face fines up to $10,000 and time in jail.

A previous suit filed last spring by swimmers and La Jolla residents, calling for the removal of the seals, has not been resolved, but appears to have been catered to by the recent City Council decision.

Originally, the Children's Pool site was a coastal bluff called "Seal Rock Point," with a shallow water area and a large offshore rock called "Seal Rock." In 1931, the existing sea wall was built connecting the point and the rock in an attempt to close off the channel and create a safe bathing area for children. The project was conceived and funded by La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. It was built at the time when the lifeguard service was minimal and just before modern indoor swimming pools were starting to develop.

By the 1970s two-thirds of pool was sand, and harbor seals began using the beach as a winter haul-out site. From the 1970s to the 1990s the seals and people shared the beach in relative harmony until 1997 when the water quality was tested and was found to have high bacteria levels from the seals' excrement. It was deemed unsafe for human use and a rope was put up to separate people and seals. Since then, the seals have dramatically increased in numbers and La Jolla residents have tried to remove them so humans can once again swim at the beach.

The two sides to the issue are relatively simple in context, but complex in emotion. One side wants to reduce the seal numbers to make it safe for human use. The other wants to maintain the current situation to conserve the local seal population and allow for the unique opportunity to foster conservation and education through a close encounter with the seals.

The emotional aspect of the issue has grown significantly over time. National publicity could be one reason for the emotion as the City Council is often portrayed in the media as trying to get rid of one of the most popular wildlife idols, the seal.

"The city of San Diego has a duty to manage these granted tidelands for the purposes they were granted, which was a bathing pool for children," said Councilman Scott Peters.

At the foundation of the argument for reducing the seals is the issue of water quality and beach access. The waste from the seals cause the water to be unfit for human use and seals have the potential to physically harm people who get to close. Given the water quality issue, it first seems ironic that environmental groups and beach advocates, such as the Surfrider Foundation, strongly oppose the City Council's decision.

Serge Dedina, executive director of the environmental group Wildcoast says, "Any action by the city to disturb the seals would be a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If the city does take action it will end up in federal court and the city will lose."

The San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has released a document in opposition to the proposed dredging. The document is available on their website (www.surfridersd.org) and cites three main reasons to keep the current situation at Children's Pool.

Educational Benefits:
Children's Pool Beach offers the closest look at wild harbor seals anywhere on the west coast of North America. Local schools use the Children's Pool Beachfor classes and field trips. La Jolla Friends of the Seals (http://www.lajollaseals.com/) have volunteer naturalists stationed at the beach to promote education and respect for the seals and their behaviors.

Ecological Benefits:
The Children's Pool Beach is the only mainland California rookery (a breeding site) south of Carpenteria and is the southernmost harbor seal rookery in the United States. It offers the harbor seals their only high and low tide sheltered pupping and nursing haul out area and is in a real sense a "lifeboat rookery." Only about 28,000 harbor seals exist along the California coast, and the population has dropped slightly since the last official count.

Seal waste is quickly and naturally absorbed into the ecosystem as nutrients for invertebrates and scavenger species, which are then fed upon by other species up the food chain resulting in a naturally rich nearshore ecosystem providing good fishing and lobstering for humans. No unusual algae or plankton blooms are noted at the Children's Pool Beach.

Economic Benefits:
Up to 80,000 people visit the Children's Pool Beach per month, including many tourists and people from other parts of San Diego. This provides revenue for local businesses.

I grew up surfing and visiting the beaches of La Jolla. After following this issue for quite a long time I have concluded that the people who support dredging the beach are perpetuating the historical heavy hand of humans on nature's unique and delicate beauty. Their selfish desires are for the benefit of a few people at the detriment of the seals and efforts on overall environmental conservation. Transparent and weak claims under a broader concern of water quality and beach access can only be viewed as a rich society's attempts to obtain a quasi-private beach through political manipulation. Scott Peters, by working in favor of the few La Jollans who want the seals off the beach, is alienating himself from the majority of voters in his district and has lost any credibility as a politician.

Water quality and beach access are some of the most important issues to surfers. However, the current situation at the Children's Pool contains education and ecological aspects that overshadow people's desire to have a beach that best suits humans. Marine wildlife contains an element of beauty and awe that is the core of why we surf and love the ocean. The seals should be left alone.

Cut out:
Help to prevent the dredging and disturbance of the harbor seals at Children's Pool. Visit: www.surfridersd.org

Cut out:
"I feel we are really blessed to have the seals. It's a wonderful outdoor schoolroom for the children and a learning experience for everyone who sees them. There are many beaches that the children of La Jolla and San Diego can use aside from the miniscule beach that the seals are on."
Edythe Scripps, relative of Ellen Browning Scripps

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