From Art Cooley
On the East Coast a harbor seal was shot and killed in Moriches Inlet in the winter of 1970 and the killing was reported to a biology class at Bellport High School. On the West coast in La Jolla, CA, Pacific harbor seals confiscated a swimming beach designed for children and, in the early months of the year, give birth; all literally within yards of hundreds of onlookers. The former helped form Students for Environmental Quality; the second spawned the longest running ‘soap opera’ in La Jolla. These incidents test how we, as humans, respond to events that affect wildlife.
Harbor seals are modest-sized pinnipeds (fin-footed animals) and belong to a group called true seals as if the other seals like sea lions are somehow false. But, true seals have no ear lobes and move by wiggling along on their bellies not up on their front legs like sea lions. On the beach they look clumsy and … well, out of their element. In the water, however, they are graceful and alluring. Their attributes give us ample reason to be enamored with them and their behavior.
When advanced biology students, who had seen the killing in Moriches Inlet, reported the death of the seal in class, we were unhappy and decided to do something about it. A little research found that Senator Smith from Northport had introduced into the New York State Senate, a bill that would protect harbor seals. Bellport High School students spent two years lobbying for the bill. In 1972 they were successful as the Senate and the Assembly both passed laws to prevent further killing of harbor seals. Respect for a wild animal had been enacted into law and a group of students got a lesson
in how politics worked. This event strengthened the early foundations of Students for Environmental Quality and helped create an organization that even today still represents our relationship with wild things.
In La Jolla, a generous lady, Ellen Browning Scripps, donated funds in 1931 to build a breakwater about 100 feet long that curves out from shore and then parallels it. Behind this structure, open at one end, sand collected and children and others enjoyed swimming in the quiet waters. About a decade ago, as harbor seals rebounded from earlier years of killing, some found this beach and decided that they too liked the quiet waters especially in the early months of the year when they needed a quiet place to pup and to rest. Today, upwards of 200 seals can be seen hauled out on the beach, inching their way like giant maggots up from the water’s edge. The lucky observer might even see an actual birth. This pupping beach has become so successful that people from all over including many out of state tourists come to see the seals. Visiting the seals has become like going to the beach to see if the ocean is still there.
But, as the seals moved in, the swimmers were displaced both physically and legally. The same interest, that prompted SEQ to seek a law that protected harbor seals in New York State, created a drive to pass the national Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. So, now whenever a swimmer goes to the water in the cove and disturbs a seal, he or she is violating the MMPA. Some have insisted that a barrier be put up to separate the swimmers from the seals and from time to time that has happened. Others, who feel that La Jolla and San Diego already have miles and miles of beach available for swimming, believe that the beach should be devoted to the seals. If there were a vote, the seals would be protected but, as in many issues, others using the legal system have challenged the seals. They argue that the donor, Mrs. Scripps left the money to build a children’s beach and that that trust can’t be violated. I have been here nearly six years and the argument over the seals was well underway when I arrived and one suspects it will continue for well into the future.
In the meantime, the seals get to sleep on the beach, some swimmers use the cove and hundreds, nay, thousands of tourists come each week to ‘see the seals.’ As our population grows and we stretch our influence further and further into the natural habitat, we will be tested by how we treat those creatures that share the earth with us. Can we survive with them? Can we survive without them? Whatever happens we have left Students for Environmental Quality and the Marine Mammal Protection Act in charge.
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