If the seals of La Jolla could follow the news, they'd be packing their extra fish into cardboard boxes about now and checking craigslist for a nice rental rock in Monterey or Santa Barbara. They would know that, by now, the courts have spoken, and their fate is practically sealed: The city has already hired a consultant to do the environmental study on the effects of dredging and cleaning the sand in Children's Pool.
For more than a decade, harbor seals have had full use of the beach at Children's Pool for birthing and raising their pups from May to December. Federal and local laws protected them from human interference, and a seawall protected them from stormy waters. People took to strolling out on the wall just to stare at them, and before long they were a tourist attraction.
However, Ellen Browning Scripps' purpose in building the seawall in 1931 was to create a safe haven for juvenile humans, not seals. When the seals took up residence, their excrement fouled sand and surf. Animal feces tends to create an unhealthy environment for children. In 2004, some San Diegans took the city to court to compel them to dredge and clean the sand, a move that would simultaneously make it less habitable for seals and safer for the kids. In 2005, a judge agreed with them, and in June of this year, an appeals court agreed with the judge. The seals' days in La Jolla are numbered, and that number is 548.
Then again, the seals have some extremely dedicated defenders, people committed to preserving Children's Pool as a seal maternity ward. The Friends of the La Jolla Seals, having been beaten up and down the judicial system, realized they have another option: Thet think they can take advantage of a 1999 law only now being implemented that will create a series of marine parks and preserves up and down the California coast.
“There's seven or eight sites—we would like it to be considered one of them,” said Jerry Horna, president of the pro-seals group.
The law he wants to take advantage of, the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), was passed in 1999 by the state Legislature with the intention of protecting sections of ocean from over-fishing while still allowing some human activity.
“The idea is to protect an entire ecological system,” said Melissa Miller-Henson, the program manager for the MLPA Initiative, which will actually draw the map.
Traditionally, conservation policy has focused on protecting specific species that are considered endangered, like the California condor or the spotted owl. Often in the process of protecting those species, their habitat gets preserved. But with oceans, many of the endangered species are hard to count, because they're underwater. To get around this problem, marine preserves create protections for specific areas. In 1999, the idea was not exactly brand new, but it was a practice only just starting to get a foothold in conservation-policy circles.
Of course, any time a government tries to protect a species, there's going to be a brawl between the forces of conservation and the forces of economics. Commercial fishermen see their livelihoods threatened, and recreational fisherman don't want to lose their prime fishing sites. The fishermen's lobby was so strong that even after passage of the law, they managed to torpedo two attempts to get it implemented, either by complaining about their lack of participation or by using their lobbying muscle to keep the implementation process under-funded. In 2006, the Legislature finally allocated enough money to the Department of Fish and Game to get the job done. Fish and Game formed the MLPA Initiative, which is managed by Miller-Henson and has 30 staff and contract employees. Statewide, the process has been broken into five phases: Central Coast, North Central Coast, South Coast (that's us!), North Coast, and San Francisco Bay. The Central Coast process has already been finished, and it ended up creating reserves and parks that protect 20.4 percent of the study area, and the nearly completed North Central Coast area will protect between 18 and 26 percent. The South Coast includes the oceanfront from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border, from the high tide line to three miles from shore, including the mainland coast and all the islands.
To make sure Horna and the rest of the public get a chance to have some say, the initiative created a system of advisory committees to make a recommendation to the Fish and Game Commission, which will make the final decision. The workflow will look something like this run-on sentence: The Scientific Advisory Team will provide data and scientific input to the Regional Stakeholders Group, which will propose several different maps of conservation areas to the Blue Ribbon Council, which will make a recommendation to the Fish and Game Commission. All of these groups are made up of volunteers who receive at most a daily stipend and travel money from the department, and all, except for the commission itself, will be appointed specifically for the South Coast by the end of August.
The initiative kicked off the South Coast phase with six open houses held earlier this month. The San Diego open house, held on July 10 at the Holiday Inn Express in Old Town, was the most heavily attended of the six. Anyone approaching the hotel on that particular sunny day would have had no trouble knowing they were in the right place: Attendees turned up in their team colors: The skin divers wore dark blue, as did the spear fishermen; representatives from San Diego Coastkeeper wore bright orange shirts; the lawyer for the National Resources Defense Council wore a suit; and others representing recreational fishermen, surfers, or kayakers all made sure they turned out in identifiable uniforms. The rest of the interested public declined to state preference through clothing. The room was filled with cardboard displays with pictures, graphs and text explaining the MLPA process, and remarkably cheerful representatives stood at each station to answer questions. Some people read the posters, but most stood in knots denoting shifting alliances: NRDC and Coastkeeper reps chatted in the center of the room. Several of the divers formed a cluster near the food in one corner, though they soon fractured into other groups. In the front, near the door, two anglers' representatives spoke furtively with the owner of a charter fishing yacht.
The plan for most of these groups is to finagle their way onto the stakeholders committee (the Scientific Advisory Team requires scientific expertise, and the members of the Blue Ribbon Council, chaired by former San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, are appointed by the state Secretary of Resources).
“Yes, I nominated myself and James Hudnall,” Horna said, referring to another prominent seal advocate. Coastkeeper nominated its director of operations, Kate Hanley, and the United Anglers of Southern California nominated three people. The NRDC nominated a lawyer, and Fred Huber, the owner of the charter fishing yacht, nominated himself. CityBeat asked everyone who would talk what they expected from the process, but most just provided platitudes about a “fair, transparent process.” Huber was more direct.
“If I could, there'd be no protected areas,” he said. Then he whipped out a photo of his three tow-headed sons. “I have more invested and more at stake in this than anyone else in the room. If they protect one area, then that's more fishermen everywhere else. You'll have one area that's beautiful, but the other will be fished to ribbons.”
That seems like a logical way to look at things: More people fishing in a concentrated area means fewer fish for everyone. But a study of lobsters from a British marine reserve showed lobsters inside the reserve were six times more abundant thean they had been before the reserve, and the overcrowding inside the reserve appeared to be forcing juveniles into the surrounding waters. An Australian protected marine area on the Great Barrier Reef saw a 68-percent increase in coral trout after only two years. Perhaps even more importantly, the study provided an early result showing that the coral trout population outside the reserve had remained steady. That result suggests that creating protected parts of the ocean leaves other parts unharmed, and scientists hope that the protected areas will actually lead to improved fishing stocks in the unprotected surroundings. Protected areas are only now becoming mature enough for experts to start assessing the impact outside the reserves.
If he's selected for the group, Horna will have to use results like these to persuade people that Children's Pool should be protected. He argues that as top predators, seals are a symbol of a healthy ecosystem, and that the seawall provides an important educational opportunity for the general public to see wild sea life. Miller-Henson was skeptical.
“It's a tough situation; there's a lot of unknowns,” she said. “Staff doesn't think this is the best tool for what they want.”
Horna thinks the logic is straightforward.