Seal-protection activists achieved their main goal February 24 when the San Diego City Council voted 6-3 in favor of closing the La Jolla Children’s Pool between 15 December and 15 May.
The ruling, which accommodates the harbor seals’ mating and “pupping” season, can only take effect if the California Coastal Commission issues a permit for the closure. The coastal commission has already stated in a memo that it favors seasonal closure as a solution for the controversy surrounding Children’s Pool.
Opponents of the closure proffered a wide variety of solutions to the problem, but the majority acknowledged the controversy required some solution. Many favored the “Lifeguard Plan,” which would see the beach more divided and monitored to encourage separation of beachgoers and seals. Some would prefer to see the Children’s Pool restored to its original purpose of access for children and the disabled.
Though they lacked cohesion and organization, both factions had policy on their side, citing federal, state, and municipal laws; as well as the tradition of Casa Beach’s role as a public structure intended for San Diegans to enjoy the ocean.
At one point, during the opposing testimonials, a pro-closure woman had to be forcefully removed from the chambers when she repeatedly approached the lectern, accusing the beach-access group of forging paperwork to cede speaking time, which would otherwise have been limited to one minute per speaker; eventually, councilmember Todd Gloria did the same, reprimanding the closure advocates for forging paperwork.
In the end, the passion play of the seal advocates, who came out in overwhelming numbers and with much greater organization, proved more compelling. Rather than making this an issue of civic policy, the pro-closure group made a plea to the city councilmembers based on sympathies for the seals. They showed film of seals giving birth, seals harmed by fishing lines, and seals being spooked by tourists and divers. Citizen testimonials from pro-closure parties went to the tune of, “when will our war against nature stop?” and “the bullies run the beach at children's pool...and I mean the two-legged ones!”
The pro-closure movement did make one salient policy point: their proposal to the solution was the cheapest and would cost the city little more than a chain to block off the beach. All the plans for shared access, they demonstrated, could be costly.
Following the citizens’ appeals, councilmember Sherri Lightner questioned the Park and Recreation Department staff on whether or not there was any hard research to back up the proposed closure. They were unable to satisfy her inquiries.
“We’re drawing a line in the sand that we don’t need,” said Lightner, calling the proposed seasonal closure of Casa Beach “unwarranted” and “regulatory overkill.” She moved to reject the proposal to close the beach.
Councilmember Marti Emerald took the side of the pro-closure group: “Just because a generous member of the community included [Casa Beach] in a trust 80 years ago doesn’t mean that the city has to continue along that vein,” Emerald said. She went on to call the seal rookery a “national treasure” and moved that Children’s Pool be closed during seal-pupping season.
“I believe that a community is judged by the way it treats the least of our citizens and by how we show reverence and respect for our wildlife,” said Emerald.
Councilmember Scott Sherman, who had seconded the motion from Lightner, asked if there were any real studies to support the case for closure. Finding none, he called the testimony supporting beach closure “pretty much anecdotal” and questioned the past efficacy of park rangers in protecting the existing marine mammal protection laws.
“I don’t see anybody standing there saying, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be that close to the seals,’” Sherman said, wondering how the seal harassment could even become an issue in the first place, since the animals are protected by federal law and there is allegedly a park ranger assigned to the area to enforce those same laws.
“I’m not necessarily a seal guard,” said the park ranger in charge of the area, who happened to be present at the meeting. “I work six hours a day, at most.”
“It sounds like you need a little help down there,” quipped Sherman before his line of inquiry effectively fizzled due to excessive diplomacy.
Following that, Lightner’s movement to quash the Children’s Pool closure failed by a 6-3 vote. After some drama over the exact wording of the measure, Emerald’s motion to uphold the closure passed, with only councilmember Mark Kersey joining Sherman and Lightner in opposition to the closure.
The issue may not end there. Ken Hunrichs, with the Friends of the Children’s Pool, stressed that his group will continue to fight the closure. He said, “It’s wrong, what they’ve done. There’s protection in the trust, there’s protection in the Constitution, there’s protection in the coastal act to prohibit exactly what the city council did today…. We may challenge [the city council’s ruling] in court, and we may have to go to the coastal commission.”