From The Cambrian - March, 2000

By Kathe Turner

The elephant seal problem is back, but this time the

parking-and-illegal-viewing mess is a couple of miles further south.

Since 1990, an expanding rookery of the seals has hauled out on curved

sandy beaches south of Piedras Blancas. During the past couple of years,

a sub-colony of the seals at the Arroyo Laguna area also has been

growing, albeit slowly.

Photo from The Cambrian by Richard and Kathe Turner

This pupping season, the growth has not been slow. Consider the pup

counts: This year's early tally of Arroyo Laguna babies (about 70, as of

Feb. 14) is already ten times last spring's total of seven babies,

according to area marine scientist Brian Hatfield. A couple of weeks

earlier, there were about 150 elephant seals at Arroyo Laguna.

And those driving past can see the seals from their cars. The obvious

cause has led to a predictable effect, with hundreds of people tramping

across the now-soggy meadow each day and, according to observers,

getting way too close to the seals.

The Arroyo Laguna area is a fragile confluence of creek, grassy meadow

and sweeping beach long favored by surfers, windsurfers, kayakers and

other sports types. The land leading to the seals is private property,

belonging to the Hearst Corp.

International attention to the original seal colony has also blossomed

this year, according to records kept by the volunteer docents from

Friends of the Elephant Seal. "Last year, our docents assisted 73,000

visitors at our designated vista point area," said the docent's

coordinator Susan McDonald. During the first five weeks of this year,

she continued, "the docents have talked to about 25,000 people. Plus, we

have about three 'school visits' a week, with an additional 400 to 500

kids. The docents work overtime to help the students."

But the docents have neither the legal right nor the manpower to set up

shop at Arroyo Laguna, according to the program's coordinator Susan

McDonald.

"We're very worried about the situation there, but the area isn't safe

or set up for us, so there's nothing we can do. It's a Hearst security

problem first. We're not law enforcers. They need to get the situation

under control before we can come in as educators," McDonald said. "This

is the most seals we've had there at Arroyo Laguna," she said. "Maybe

it's because of the tides, or beach changes. Maybe it's more appealing

spot to the elephant seals this year. We just don't know."

The animals, which some have likened to lurching waterbeds, have been

fairly regular visitors in San Simeon, and have shown up on Moonstone

Beach, in the beach areas near Shamel Park, Cayucos and as far south as

Morro Bay and Avila Beach. Most of those wanderers are rogue males

seeking refuge from the regular routs doled out to them by the dominant

males.

To get to the elephant seals hauled out at Arroyo Laguna in the past

couple of months, thousands of people have hopped the barbed wire or

gate (and some have even cut the wire) and then walked across the wide

swath of ranch land to get to the beachhead and the seals. On the way

from Point A to Point B, lots of the visitors have meandered within

feet, or even inches, of young bulls hauled up on the meadow to get away

from alpha males.

The situation isn't safe, for human walkers, the seals or people parking

far too many cars in an area too small for them all.

Steven Hearst, spokesman for the Hearst Corp., agreed that the situation

"is very troublesome from a safety standpoint. I don't really have a

solution, other than continue to work and encourage the docents to do

what they do -- educate the people and discourage activities that don't

go hand-in-hand with viewing (the seals) in a safe manner."

Hearst, who saw the situation firsthand a couple of weeks ago during a

visit to the North Coast, said that public viewing of the seals should

be done at the designated vista-point turnouts, where the visitors can

get instructions and information from the trained volunteers. "Anything

beyond that is unsafe," he said, adding, "we very much appreciate the

work that the docents do."

Solutions to the knotty problem are possible. But as was the case when

the seals hit the beaches near Piedras Blancas in 1990, such fixes take

time to put into place.

And neither the seals nor the visitors appear willing to wait.

"It's a mess" at Arroyo Laguna, said McDonald. The need there is acute,

she added, just as it was when hordes of visitors playing "I spy" with

the original seal colony were parking haphazardly on Highway 1, causing

traffic jams and generally creating unsafe conditions for people and

elephant seals.

In 1997, the docents launched their program after a lengthy,

multi-agency cooperative brought together the landowner, ecologists and

scientists and the federal, state and local governments to ameliorate

the problem south of Piedras Blancas. To learn more about the program,

log on to http://www.elephantseal.org/.

So the same laundry list of agencies is going through elephant seal deja

vu, as participants ponder once more the ways of protecting land, seals

and the human beings who are too anxious to get up close and personal

with the massive marine mammals.

 

Grant for Volunteer Group

The Friends of the Elephant Seal docent center in San Simeon and a

planned expansion into a beach watchers' program, got a $40,000 fiscal

shot in the arm last week.

That was when the announcement came out about the 1999-2000 grant awards

from the state Coastal Resources Agency. Other area projects receiving

grants included the management plan for the Estero Bay properties in

Cayucos ($40,000), the county's Park and Recreation Commission's

countywide coastal access way plan and two projects in Morro Bay.

FOES had asked for $80,000 toward the two off-shoot projects. However,

state funders are "looking to get the most bang for the buck," said John

Euphrat, a county planner working on the grant allocations, and "that's

why none of the projects was funded at 100 percent. Like the elephant

seal program. The way that project works, more money is better, but this

will be very useful."

Euphrat was at the haulout area south of Piedras Blancas on Feb. 22, he

said, adding that the docents were out in force, "even in the rain,

doing their good job as usual."

"We're thrilled. This is so great. It will give us one more tool to

protect the habitat up there," said Susan McDonald, the docent

coordinator. "This will give us a chance to formalize the data

collecting that all the docents do every day. We haven't had the means

to set up a data base or have a way to collect all the information and

put it into a useful package we can provide to the other agencies."

Once the new program is established, volunteer beach watchers would

monitor the elephant seal rookery for dead or injured animals, counting

pups, keeping an eye out for signs of increased pollution and collecting

other environmental information.

All that data would be reported periodically to appropriate government

agencies, such as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the

National Marine Fisheries Service and the state Department of Fish and

Game.

"The Sanctuary really wants to work closely with us on this," McDonald

said, "because they have wanted to do something similar. This is

something that Chet Forrest has worked toward for some time."

The county got $819,500 worth of grants in this Coastal Resources Agency

cycle. The grant money comes from royalties paid by offshore oil

development to the federal government, Euphrat said. The federal

government passes the money along to the state resources agency, which

then seeks guidance from the county on which coastal projects need the

funds most urgently, he explained.

The money has been assigned, but it will take time before FOES has it in

hand. Now that the allocations are complete, county contracts will be

negotiated first with the state, then with the nonprofit agencies that

will take responsibility for the programs, Euphrat concluded.

Kathe Tanner

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