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Seals at La Jolla Beach Threatened
by Emma Moore
Children’s Pool Beach in San Diego is where the first harbor seal pups of the year are born in California. Already 28 seal pups have arrived at the beach in 2006! The beach is surrounded by a coastal sea wall which protects the cove, on which people can walk and view the seals from the closest vantage point anywhere on the west coast of North America.
The beach and water can be accessed via another route, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) is breached whenever swimmers or other beach goers wander too close to the seals. The MMPA, enacted in 1972, prohibits the take of marine mammals in U.S. waters, which means harassment of any kind that “has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption or behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.” Violation of the MMPA is punishable by hefty fines. A trench dug out of the sand and a temporary sign explaining the MMPA are the only things protecting the haul out area and the seals, even during the seals’ pupping season.
Local volunteers with La Jolla Friends of the Seals often stand at the line and educate visitors about harbor seals. The seals attract thousands of tourists to the area, as approximately 80,000 people a month use the beach for seal watching. The SEALS program here in Bolinas Lagoon and Tomales Bay was established to document and reduce the impact of human activity on harbor seals much as the local volunteers in San Diego document and educate seal watchers. The proximity of visitors often alarms a seal colony. If the seals go into the water for safety, their important resting time is disrupted and pups can become separated from their mothers. Eventually, chronic disturbance and its resulting flushing of the seals may result in a reduced birth rate and even abandonment of the haul-out sites altogether.
There are two opposing sides on the battle of beach access rights, the ‘shared use’ group and the ‘joint use’ group. ‘Shared use’ of the beach is advocated for by those who wish the area to be secured for the seals. It involves allowing seal watching from the coastal wall and protecting the seals hauled out on the beach. Alternatively, others who wish to use the beach and water for recreation and swimming propose a ‘joint use’ policy.
Those that want a ‘joint use’ of the beach claim the seals will simply haul out elsewhere. This is disputed by those that wish to see a protected area for the seals who state that nearby rocky haul-outs are subject to large surf during pupping and nursing season. ‘Joint use’ of the beach is considered tantamount to forcing the seals to leave the area by the ‘shared use’ group. Download the Meeting Guide for Joint Use document here! >>
The clash between human and animal use of resources has been seen on many occasions, from the sea lions at Pier 39 to the sea lions at Moss Landing. When sea lions first came to Pier 39 there was some initial resistance to their presence until people realized the benefit of having a natural tourist attraction. The Moss Landing issue remains to be resolved, but the Pier 39 sea lions are well established as part of the landscape of San Francisco and an essential part of the tourist industry.
The seals at La Jolla are not as welcome as the sea lions at Pier 39 and they are still under threat as the debate continues, but they have hard working defenders who are determined to ensure the beach will continue as a successful rookery that thousands of people can enjoy.
What can you do to help the La Jolla beach seals?
If you are in the area, see the harbor seals and be a part of the thousands of people who come specifically to view them. The coastal sea wall makes for an amazing viewpoint and there is always the chance to see a live birth during pupping season. Secondly, pressure needs to be placed on National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) at the La Jolla rookery. Currently NMFS has abandoned the La Jolla seals, and has in fact urged the City to remove the rookery using Section 109(h) of the MMPA, without any further authorization or incidental-take permit from NMFS.
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