The California Coastal Commission voted Thursday to approve a controversial plan by the San Diego City Council to close one of the city's most popular beaches during the annual five-month pupping season of harbor seals.
The ban, to stretch each season from Dec. 15 to May 15, will prohibit people from using the Children's Pool beach in La Jolla, a small, horseshoe-shaped beach created by a nearby breakwater.
“The Children’s Pool in La Jolla is a San Diego treasure that is enjoyed by locals and visitors from across the world," said Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
He called the plan a "a fair proposal that specifically protects the seals during their pupping season while still allowing the public to enjoy the area with access to the breakwater that surrounds the beach.”
The city had attempted to keep people from harassing the seals by putting up a rope barrier, but it was deemed ineffective.
The council in February voted 6-3 to close the beach during the pupping season. The move was endorsed by pro-seal activists but opposed by divers, snorkelers and others.
Under the Coastal Commission decision, which came at a meeting in San Diego, the ban would last for five years. The city will be required to study its effectiveness in protecting the seals.
For two decades, through dueling litigation and political upheaval, the issue of people vs. seals at the 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 pupping season -- while still allowing narrow access to the water. In 2013, then-Mayor Bob Filner ordered the beach closed at night and a security camera installed.
During the pupping season, female seals give birth, and then nurse and tend their young. Animal rights activits say the beach must be closed during those months to keep the female seals from becoming spooked and slithering into the water, abandoning their pups.
Divers, snorkelers and other beachgoers say 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.
The council member from La Jolla opposed the closure, calling the move a dangerous precedent in restricting the public from a recreational site.
"Seals are not an endangered or even a threatened species," Councilwoman Sherri Lightner said before the council's February vote. "I'm concerned we're drawing a line in the sand we do not need."
But former Councilwoman Donna Frye, who testified at the Coastal Commission, said a ban will eliminate the need for endless debate about whether people are harassing the seals.
"If you're on the beach, you're in violation during pupping season," Frye told KPBS-TV after the commission vote.
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. 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.