SAN DIEGO -- Delving gingerly into one of the most contentious issues in local politics, the City Council voted 6 to 3 on Monday to close the beach at the Children's Pool in La Jolla during the annual five-month pupping season of harbor seals.
For two decades, through dueling litigation and political upheaval, the issue of people vs. seals at the horseshoe-shaped beach has raged, costing the city more than $1 million in legal bills.
In 2012, the council voted to stretch a rope barrier about 150 feet to keep people from disturbing the seals during the Dec. 15 to May 15 pupping season -- while still allowing people narrow access to the water.
Then-Mayor Bob Filner ordered the beach closed at night during last year's pupping season.
But the night closure and the rope barrier did not prevent some people from harassing the seals, some innocently, some out of either malice or as a protest, according to dozens of speakers at the emotional council meeting, many of whom brought home videos as evidence.
During the pupping season, female seals give birth and then nurse and tend their young. City staff members, encouraged by the Coastal Commission, recommended that the beach be closed during those months to keep the female seals from becoming spooked and slithering into the water, abandoning their pups.
Divers, snorkelers and others protested, saying the danger to the seals is overstated and that shared use is still possible. A La Jolla committee that advises the council on land use and other issues was opposed to the closure.
"This is the birthplace of modern diving," said diver Ryan Sweeney. "Closing this beach is a blasphemous decision."
The council member from La Jolla urged that the council turn down the closure until a study could be done to determine how many pups do not survive because of harassment.
"Seals are not an endangered or even a threatened species," said Councilwoman Sherri Lightner. "I'm concerned we're drawing a line in the sand we do not need."
Councilwoman Marti Emerald disagreed and wrote the motion authorizing the closure.
"This little piece of beach has become a regional treasure," she said. "Let's send a message to the public: We really do respect the wildlife."
But by 6 to 3 the council voted in favor of closure, to the cheers of the pro-seal faction and disgruntlement of the others.
The two sides do not even agree on what to call the beach: The seal faction refers to it as Casa Beach, the opposing side as the Children's Pool.
During the debate, one woman was ordered by acting Mayor Todd Gloria to be escorted out of the council chambers by police after refusing to be quiet.
If members of the public were emotional, most council members preferred to remain quiet.
Among those not speaking on the issue were Gloria, Mayor-Elect Kevin Faulconer and Councilman David Alvarez, defeated by Faulconer in the Feb. 11 election for mayor and now seeking reelection to the council.
Because of its breakwater -- paid for in the 1920s by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps -- the beach is one of the few spots on the San Diego County coastline that provides easy access to the water even during winter months.
Then again, the seals have become a tourist attraction, with buses able to drive by. An estimated 1.5 million people come each year to look at the animals.
Why the seals began using the beach about two decades ago is unclear, but it has become, according to some seal experts, the only rookery south of Ventura County, 160 miles away.
Bryan Pease, attorney for a group dedicated to protecting the seals, rejoiced after the vote, saying, "A supermajority of the City Council has approved pupping season closure ... to protect nursing seals and their pups."