Because of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes any type of harassment of seals a crime, the 9th U.S. District Circuit Court of Appeals granted a group of animal activists an emergency motion to install a rope around the Children's Pool seal colony. On Monday, March 10, three judges ruled in favor of the Animal Protection and Rescue League (APRL) "“ a group of activists that sued the city after many incidents, including two baby seals that apparently were abandoned due to human interference.
"It's the city council's job to put it up," said Brian Pease, APRL attorney. "But the 9th Circuit ordered that the city can put up the rope."
According to Pease, the San Diego City Council passed a motion to erect the rope barrier, but it was struck down after swimmer Valerie O'Sullivan won a suit forcing the city to return the beach and waters to healthy conditions. But federal trumps state, and the MMPA is a federal act, enforced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). After two baby seals were abandoned on the beach last week and then rescued by SeaWorld, the seal activists headed back to court.
Joe Cordaro, wildlife biologist with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries, said he struggles with rescues every year. When he received a call from APRL about the abandoned seal pups, he ran through a list to determine whether he could ask SeaWorld to rescue them.
"We don't allow rescues to occur in natural areas," said Cordaro, explaining that the Children's Pool is a natural rookery, or seal breeding ground. "I have to wrestle with, "˜Was this pup abandoned naturally or because of human interference' ... there were indications of disturbance from tourists and commercial photographers."
Cordaro said the Fisheries' recommended viewing distance is 50 feet. The La Jolla beach is unique, he said, because people can walk right off the street and watch the seals "” no other place in California is as accessible as the Children's Pool.
"I had to rely on (activists') reports I was getting," Cordaro said.
He had activists from Seal Watch fill out reports.
"There's no way I could determine it was natural, so I decided to let SeaWorld rescue those two pups," he said.
Cordaro asked SeaWorld to carefully retrieve the two stranded pups.
According to Dave Koontz, SeaWorld's communications director, the two baby seals have gained weight and are doing well. SeaWorld plans to release them back into the wild as soon as they can survive on their own, he said.
The city installed a rope around the remaining seals and their pups at the Children's Pool about 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 11. Although the rope was erected, it is only a recommendation, Cordaro said. People can still go through the rope into the water, but if they harass or "flush" the seals, then they will be in violation of the federal act.
Seal activists film violators, usually divers, for prosecution. Some local divers try to goad activists by hosting barbecues on the sand. The two groups' feud escalated last September, when federal authorities cited divers for flushing seals, using footage provided by seal activists. When the activists received a death threat for providing that footage to authorities, they turned it over to the FBI, which recently arrested a La Jolla man associated with the diving group.
Kent Trego was charged with one count of threatening to retaliate against a federal witness and two counts of transmitting threats in interstate commerce for allegedly sending an e-mail using the alias Biker Bobbie and threatening a seal activist.
Trego's indictment was returned by a federal grand jury March 4 and unsealed during his March 10 arraignment, U.S. Attorney Karen P. Hewitt said in a news release.