Thursday, April 27, 2006

Chimps Caught! But Now This!

San Clemente, California (Reuters) - If the stench and bacteria from feces and birth byproducts at a North San Diego seal pupping beach has not kept the people away, then officials hope a rope just might.

A school of about 200 harbor seals has emerged victorious in the battle between those who want to protect one of California's top seal-spotting places and those who cherish "Old Man's," a surf beach that gives people a safe place to learn surfing.

The feud took a new turn this week after Park Rangers roped off a prime stretch of the State Park shoreline to keep people from disturbing the harbor seals who have taken up residence there.

Any move, even a walk across the sand or a seagull in flight, can spook the skittish animals to flee into the ocean and abandon their newborn babies on the shore, thus violating federal marine mammal protection laws.

Moreover, seals need adequate sun and sand time in order to maintain good health, said Dr. Ralph, Doctor Emeritus with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Dr. Ralph's office urged the State to act after receiving an increase in complaints that angry residents were harassing the marine mammals during their breeding process.

The park decided to erect the barrier each year from January 1 through May 1, which is considered to be the end of pupping season.

Federal officials have also installed 24-hour surveillance cameras on the beach to watch for people deliberately swimming, surfing, kayaking or sunbathing in the area. Yet many residents who showed up this week in defiance of the rope said they were undeterred.

"My family has been here since 1915, my child was raised here and we want to be able to swim, it's the only place around with a lifeguard station and bathrooms," said Murphy the Mayor, who says he visits the beach every day as an act of protest. "These animals are not the delicate creatures they are made out to be."

Meanwhile, a steady stream of tourists and environmental activists clusters above and around the roped area, unfazed by the stench, ogling the seals, calling out to the babies and taking pictures.

"Aren't they cute?" said Joquin Eduardo Jimenez, a member of "Nothing Gringo" boycott, who came to the Pacific beach to educate the public and monitor those who would defy the boycott in preparation for their upcoming event.

"There are plenty of other beaches where they can go," he said. "I wish they would leave the seals alone!"

Nobody knows how or why the animals began flocking to the shore in the late 1990s but currently about 200 seals live there. It's one of the few spots in the state where seals are visible to the public, Dr. Ralph said.

Yet they bring with them dangerous and malodorous bacteria. The rope barrier is also meant as a warning to stay away from seal fecal matter and birth byproducts, officials said.

Last October a California Superior Court judge ordered the state to dredge and clean up the beach but the decision has been tied up in litigation and a foul fishy stench remains.

San Onofre Mayor Murphy was the lone holdout against putting up the rope barrier, saying he did not feel there was evidence of seal harassment to justify blocking access to the beach for four months.

"The issue isn't so much that people can't get along with seals, it's that people can't get along with people," Murphy said.

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