It was the latest twist in a series of back-and-forth developments over several years defining the relationship between seals and human recreational users — swimmers, fisherman, divers, et cetera — who access the ocean via the protected pocket beach.
Paid for by La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps and created as a safe wading area for children, the pool was deeded to the city in 1931. During the 1990s, the manmade breakwater became increasingly overrun by seals, who turned the pool into a haul-out site and a rookery.
In 1997, the pool was closed to human contact by the county health department because of high bacteria counts from seal waste buildup in its shallow waters. Signs there continue to warn that water contact could pose a serious health risk.
In rendering their decision, coastal commissioners argued the city of San Diego’s shared-use policy allowing both species year-round access at the pool has failed.
“It hasn’t worked out in terms of what we’ve seen in the videos and the testimony (of seal harassment) we’ve heard,” said Commissioner Dayna Bochco, who added, “If more people acted reasonably, we wouldn’t be here again today.”
Noting she couldn’t imagine Scripps being happy with seal harassment at her pool, Bochco said “this isn’t a permanent closure of a beach, just five months out of the year.”
Bochco added some might misinterpret the commission’s mission to promote “maximum” beach access as promoting “absolute” access.
“We are not mandated to do that,” Bochco said. “We’re allowed to control the access to the beach in a reasonable way.”
First District Councilwoman and Council president pro tem Sherri Lightner spoke out against Children’s Pool's seasonal closure.
“The community has never supported a seasonal beach closure and is not in favor of this one,” said Lightner, adding, “It’s premature to permanently close this beach.”
Pointing out seals are not “threatened or endangered,” Lightner characterized seasonally closing Children’s Pool as “a very dangerous and unusual precedent.” The councilwoman said the ideal solution “is one of shared use, with no unnecessary restrictions placed on the beach or ocean users.”
Describing the proposed seasonal beach closure as “regulation overkill,” and declaring that arguments in favor of beach closure were not “fact-based” or “data-driven,” Lightner concluded, “There’s been no consideration for what long-term, unintended consequences might result from this proposal.”
Spokespersons for groups on both sides of the issue offered testimony for and against seasonal beach closure.
“A civilization is judged by the way it treats its animals,” testified former County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, who previously represented La Jolla, quoting Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi. She added a five-month restriction on human contact at the beach “isn’t going to be too impactful, reduces seal harassment and maintains the viewing experience for locals and tourists alike.”
Others saw the seasonal beach closure as an infringement on rights guaranteed by the state Constitution.
“The city’s been a bad steward for the Children’s Pool, breaking their promises to the people of San Diego in letting this pool go to ruin,” argued Ken Hunrichs of Friends of the Children’s Pool. “A (public) trust and a coastal resource has been ruined in the name of so-called wildlife protection.”
Hunrichs said shared use at the pool hasn’t worked “because it is not being allowed to work.”
Describing the pool as “a children’s playground,” Hunrichs argued that Children’s Pool beach “ought to remain open year-round.”
Free-diver Ryan Sweeney characterized the decadelong battle over shared use at Children’s Pool as a “long and tortured soap opera.” Insisting that the Marine Life Protection Act has closed 70 percent of La Jolla to fishing, Sweeney said the pool is “smack-dab in the middle of the remaining 30 percent left open.
“Why isn’t there a pinniped management plan?” Sweeney asked. “When will this problem end? When will the city take responsibility and do something about it?”
In its unanimously passed motion, coastal commissioners attached conditions to seasonal beach closure. When the measure sunsets in five years, the city of San Diego was directed to return with updates on the feasibility of providing Americans With Disabilities (ADA) access at the pool's beach and the evaluation of possible methods for cleansing the pool’s seal waste-contaminated sand and water.