A judge has delayed his order to remove a harbor seal colony from a sheltered beach cove after the governor signed a bill that could let them remain.
Superior Court Judge Yuri Hofmann on Thursday stayed his order just before the deadline expired, pending an October hearing. Earlier this week the judge gave San Diego 72 hours to begin dispersing hundreds of federally protected harbor seals from a beach in La Jolla.
But the city asked the judge to stay his order after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger signed a bill permitting the cove to be used as a marine mammal park.
The city has been in a years-long battle over whether the cove known as Children's Pool must be reserved for children.
A seawall was built in 1931 by a local philanthropist, Ellen Browning Scripps, to create a cove where children could safely play in the surf. The Children's Pool (a.k.a. Casa beach) was used for years by kids until harbor seals took over the site in the 1990s.
The seals use the sheltered area to sleep, nurse pups and molt. Though the beach is closed to people, the seawall provides visitors a vantage point for observing seal behavior.
While some have fought to return the beach to its purpose as a bathing area for children, others are just as adamant about maintaining the cove as a seal sanctuary.
However, a new law by State Senator Christine Kehoe would allow the beach (which is on state land) to also serve as a marine mammal habitat.
"I'm grateful for the governor's quick signing of this legislation and hopefully it will bring some calm to an overheated discussion," Kehoe said in a statement. "Our community has struggled through this debate for more than 16 years and now the future use of the Children's Pool rests with the San Diego City Council - as it rightfully should."
A poll released last month by Competitive Edge Research & Communication revealed that more than 60% of San Diego adults wanted the seals to be left alone, versus 25% who wanted them gone. The poll also found seven percent fewer adults would visit the cove this summer if the seals were no longer there.
Similarly, a 2007 Zogby poll found the seals had 81% backing from the public.
"Because this is not just about the swimming, it's about everybody who comes to visit the seals. And if there are no seals, we have no tourists," Uybungco said. "In a slowing economy, we need people to come there and sponsor a wonderful treasure that the city offers."
The court battle began in 2006 when Valerie O'Sullivan filed a lawsuit demanding the seals be removed and a swimming area restored to its "intended beneficiaries."
Since the State Supreme Court upheld in 2007 an appeals court decision that the beach should be restored to accommodate humans, tensions have risen between both sides of the debate.
Friends of the Childrens' Pool, which advocates for the return of the cove to people, decries the pollution from animal waste and warns of the "violent" tactics of animal activists.
Supporters of the pinnipeds, meanwhile, have posted videos on YouTube showing harassment of the seals, including one man seeking to establish himself as "the alpha animal on that beach."
Should the city be forced to drive seals from the cove, officials said the long-term plan - using a recording of dogs barking - would cost an estimated $688,000. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said the seal dispersal plan would not likely improve water quality.