July 24, 1998
Sooner or later, La Jolla will have to choose between its cute and entertaining harbor seals and its politically savvy, predominantly wealthy, beach-loving humans.
Such a confrontation is inevitable, say federal officials, because the simple facts of nature are that seals and people should not, over the long term, share the same beaches.
That assesment was one of the surprises that surfaced last night at an informational forum at a La Jolla Town Council meeting to examine the city's proposal for dealing with seals whose excrement has polluted La Jolla's Children's Pool beach for nearly a year with fecal coliform bacteria.
The seals-only vs. humans-only theory of compatibility presented by biologists from the federal National Marine Fisheries Service conflicts with San Diego's current pursuit of a "shared-use" policy at Children's Pool.
But federal biologist Joseph Cordero went out of his way at the forum to explain his view of the situation in the most blunt terms.
If the city's proposal for cleaning up the water doesn't work, then "the city of San Diego and the citizens of La Jolla have to make a decision," he said. "We are not in favor of having people and seals on the same beach. If there is a relationship like that, we want people well back. We don't want them at the outskirts of (where the seals lie on the shoreline). We don't want them trying to pet the animals. We don't want any kind of interaction if at all possible."
In recent years, the previously benign harbor seal population of La Jolla suddenly began to "haul out" or come onto the beach to rest at the protected cove in increasing numbers.
Experts estimate that anywhere from 160 to 200 harbor seals hover in the waters near Children's Cove.
Their presence only became a problem when routine water testing by the county Health Department, which has been ongoing for 15 years, detected unhealthy levels of bacteria. Subsequent DNA tests positively linked the contamination to seal feces.
To deal with the problem, the city initially decided that humans needed to reclaim their share of the beach. City lifeguards were told to stop putting up rope and tape barriers that cordoned off whatever area of beach the seals had claimed.
Next, a committee headed by Councilman Harry Mathis approved a plan to dredge three-fourths of the sand at Children's Pool to increase the circulation of sea water at the polluted cove and, perhaps, also create a more narrow platform for the seals to congregate.
Removing the sand at a cost of $40,000 would essentially restore the cove to its original state in the 1930s, when a concrete sea wall was erected to create a safe swimming area for children, city officials say.
"This really was created specifically for humans," Mathis told last night's audience of about 75 people. "I certainly don't want to forfeit it to the seals."
The way Mathis sees the situation, the seals have taken control of the cove, and he'd like to see "an equilibrium" restored in which humans have as much access to the beach as the marine mammals have.
Mathis said he believes that, ultimately, some sort of barrier will have to be erected to keep the seals away from the cove.
Complications have surfaced that have forced city officials to put aside plans to open up several porthole-like sluiceways in the Children's Pool sea wall in conjunction with the sand removal.
The next step will come sometime this fall, when the San Diego City
Council will be asked to approve the dredging plan, which must then be
reviewed by the state Coastal Commission.