Seal of Disapproval

So, living in San Diego, one pleasure is getting to head down to the coast and walk along the bluffs at Ellen Browning Scripps park in La Jolla.  The park is a large open grassy area that folks of all ages use to picnic, play and walk and enjoy the gorgeous scenery.  It’s great public access for a part of town that is pretty high rent otherwise.

On the southern end of the park is the La Jolla Children’s pool.   Which ever since I moved here, I'd always heard referred to as The Seal Pool.  You wouldn’t know it, but this piece of beach has been one of the bigger public debates ever since I moved here nearly a decade ago.

A little history:  In 1931, Ms Scripps granted to the state the park and paid for a large, arcing sea wall to be built to shelter children and give them a place to play where they’re protected from waves.  The gift was approved by the state legislature and signed by the Governor – notably dictating that:

"said lands shall be devoted exclusively to public park, bathing pool for children, parkway, highway, playground, and recreational purposes".

Fast forward 60 years, when in the 1990s, California Harbor Seals began to haul out and rook at the site.  The site began to be closed fairly often for “seal excrement overload”.  Kids could often no longer play and swim there.  Tempers between pro-kid-swimming and pro-seal-hanging-outing began to rise.

In fact, the whole time I’ve lived here, the disposition of the park has been in the courts.  And the reason is that it’s pretty complicated – mostly about who has jurisdiction here.  The land was granted for a specific purpose – that’s pretty clear – and ratified by the state – and it shouldn’t matter that it was nearly 80 years ago.  

The California Coastal Commission said that the pool cannot be a seal preserve, but advocates say the seals fall under the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act – though they are not particularly endangered.  All of a sudden we have eminent domain crashing into local versus state versus federal jurisdiction wrangling!  Oy!

Just this week, the Governator signed legislation giving the San Diego City Council jurisdiction over the Children’s Pool, starting in 2010.  But not to be pre-empted, a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled that the seals had to be gone – and within 72 hours!  The current plan has the city using (and I’m not making this up) recorded barking dog sounds to disperse the seals.  The estimated cost (and I’m not making this up either): $700,000 — mostly for round-the-clock security to protect the dispersers and their equipment from pro-seal advocates.  Clearly, this is a really bone-headed idea and I think likely to be suspended by a higher court before we really get silly.

As for me, I have a soft spot for the seals (and lets face it, this is because seals are cute – if they weren’t we wouldn’t be having this argument – animal control would be out there in a heartbeat) and would like to think that they should be allowed to stay – or at least have free rein to use the park.   Just like any other beach, if it’s too polluted to use, then sorry kids – schlep all the way over to La Jolla Shores for the day, okay?

Of course, given my libertarian leanings –I think about me.  What if I had granted the use of some of my land for a specific purpose –- say a tennis center –  and then a couple decades later some folks decided that it should be used as a bird sanctuary and decide to convert it.  I don’t think I’d be very happy, and might wonder what it would take for me to get my gift back.

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21 thoughts on “Seal of Disapproval

  1. Cute as they are, I think the seals need to go. But wow, what an expensive way to get them to leave! Now, if they were endangered and decided to set up camp here, I'd feel differently. But they're not. I wonder what the folks at Monterey Bay Aquarium would think?

  2. Huh…you'd think they'd find a way to compromise. The area looks big enough to have both. Why not just section off a part of it for the seals and have the rest be for kids? Are the seals aggressive?

  3. Steve – a lovely read – I get the feeling you're like J. Anyone who comes to our area gets a nice tour from him, complete with a history of the area. Local lore is so interesting.
    As I've mentioned before, I don't feel sorry for the seals. If an Inuit was going to blow their brains out for food, I'm fine with that. Sorry if that sounds cold, but that's how I feel.
    People want their tiny kids to be safe in the ocean – are you joking? It's the ocean. It's not a backyard swimming pool. Sharks and seals actually live there. Swimming is a luxury. It's not about "fairness", it's just about common sense.
    ps I'm glad you pointed out the seal's status, I may have been mistaken about their populations. I know the Alaskan subspecies declined 67 percent, but not sure about the ones in Cali.

  4. ps We have "safe" beach areas for little kids in MA, often parents will use it as an excuse not to watch their kids at all while they swim – which can actually be more dangerous.

  5. Budget deficit? What budget deficit? Yeah, not really psyched about the idea of taxpayer dollars going to something as ridiculous as dog barking recordings.Shouldn't the seal area count as "recreation"? There's probably no more oft-visited place for La Jolla visitors than the children's pool, to see the seals!When you give a land gift, particularly a beach, you have no idea how the weather/environment will change that piece of land. And I don't think you can plan for every contingency. I mean, what if some other act of God or nature changes the children's pool? We couldn't very well reverse a lightning strike or eradicate a bacteria or something like that… where would we draw the line? It seems to me that the spirit of her bequest was that this area be enjoyed by the people for recreation, even if it doesn't specifically include a children's bathing area.

  6. Any time you set something up involving nature so directly, we run a risk of unintended consequences. It seems to me that kids can swim in a local pool…with a lifeguard.
    Hopefully, it will get resolved more simply and the 700,000 can be spent in a more practical way….like think of how many school supplies that would purchase….

  7. The hard part about the cost is that it will take fairly constant vigilance to make sure that the seals don't return in short and to protect the dispersers and their equipment from pro-seal advocates. Crazy.

  8. Jamie — I don't think the seals are naturally aggressive — though I don't know what a mother that had just birthed pups might be like. More than sharing the beach and pool, the seal poop is the main contaminator for people.

  9. Ellie — well, I don't know that it's so wrong to want a nice place for children to swim — but the part that always irks me is that one of the nicest beaches in SD (La Jolla Shores) is maybe a mile or two away — so what's the biggie?

  10. Hapa — I can't fathom all the money that's been spent by the city, state and private groups over the last 15 years about this, can you? It's an interesting call on how to interpret the land-grant, though I agree — I think I lot more people go to LJ to see the seals than to swim their kids!

  11. Katie — the cost just seems staggeringly stupid to me. In a sense, I'd rather do nothing and let the seals have it. There is a nice beach about a mile or two from the site — which makes all the legal wrangling that much more annoying.

  12. Steve –
    I certainly didn't mean to imply that I was against a nice place to swim for kids :) Heck, part of the reason I'm a biologist is because growing up, I had nice and relatively safe places to swim in the ocean. I can't imagine my childhood without it! It's when the government start to chase away wildlife who live there that it becomes offensive to me.

  13. Steve – read this when you first posted it and have been letting it "simmer on the back burner". Tough calls to make all around. First, I think the Federal side should butt out (the libertarian in me, as well). Second, the family should have put a clause in the will that said ownership would revert back to the heirs if any government attempted to change the use of the land from their intent. We have an old school in Nashville – the land on which it was built was donated to the city by a family who stipulated that if it ceased to be used for an active school – ownership would revert back to the heirs. Sure enough, Nashville closed the school, used it as a storage dump, and a local church saw how useful the building could be not only for their meetings, but to provide offices for other local outreach, relief & food pantry organizations…so they bought it. The city tried to fight it, but thankfully without success. Now it's no longer an eyesore, and has a very productive and positive impact on the surrounding community. I know the situation with La Jolla is different, but ideally the family should've retained rights to the land if it ceased to be used according to their wishes. Beyond that, the local governments need to figure it out in a common sense manner. I assume municipalities in CA are being hit by similar budget crunches as the state, but on a smaller level. Why, then, commit a ridiculous amount of money to erdicate the seals when other more pressing budget matters must be attended to? In fact….why not sell the land (first option to any heirs) and use the money to supplement government funds?

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