San Diego, Seal Research Capital: Fact Check

San Diego, Seal Research Capital: Fact Check

File photo by Rob Davis

The Children's Pool in La Jolla.

Image: Huckster PropagandaStatement: “We’ve become an internationally known center for seal research now because of (seal cam),” Mayor Bob Filner said at a May 22 City Council budget hearing.

Determination: Huckster Propaganda

Analysis: Mayor Bob Filner has been an advocate for La Jolla’s harbor seals since his early days in office.

He called a press conference in January to unveil the seal cam, a 24-hour live-streaming video of the neighborhood’s seals, and later temporarily closed the La Jolla Children’s Pool during seal pupping season.

Filner cemented his commitment to the seals by including money for the cameras in his latest budget proposal. He suggests the city spend $50,000 to operate the camera system next year because the nonprofit Western Alliance for Nature, the group that put up the cam, can’t afford to keep it rolling.

Councilman Scott Sherman questioned that monetary commitment at a Wednesday budget hearing. In response, Filner hailed the camera’s benefits.

Among those the mayor cited was seal cam’s contribution to research efforts and how it’s apparently helped put San Diego on the map.

“We’ve become an internationally known center for seal research now because of this,” he said.

This would be surprising because the seal cam has only been up for about five months. We decided to check with local experts to see whether the seal footage has truly upped San Diego’s game when it comes to research.

Officials with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institution, San Diego State University, University of California, San Diego and others told us they haven’t used the camera to conduct research.

Only the Western Alliance for Nature, the group that runs the camera system, could share any details about a formal study. The nonprofit, often called the WAN Conservancy, aims to protect struggling habitats and maintain biodiversity. It previously lobbied to preserve a beach that is home to several endangered species.

Sara Wan, the group’s co-founder, said volunteers or paid workers operate the camera around the clock and record key facts every hour. Those include the number of seals on the beach and in the water, and the number of people on the beach or along the sea wall.

Wan, a former California Coastal Commission chairwoman, is leading the effort. She wants to publish a paper on the seals’ behavior and reactions to humans.

Thus far, Wan said, her group has shared its data with the Coastal Commission and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

This research doesn’t appear to have gotten much traction among international or even local groups that analyze seal behavior.

In fact, the human behavior caught on camera has drawn much more attention.

CNN, Huffington Post and CBS News were among the media outlets that reported on footage that captured two women harassing the seals at night.

That might make San Diego the center of some national ribbing for human-on-seal violence, but not for seal research, though Wan said the camera draws an average of more than 1,000 visitors a day from countries as far away as China and Ireland.

That’s not to say San Diego doesn’t have potential to become a hub for researchers interested in harbor seals, the species that lives at the Children’s Pool.

Jim Moore, a retired biological anthropologist, once worked with a graduate student to document La Jolla’s seal population, one he said hadn’t been studied much.

The student concluded that while previous seal management plans for the Children’s Pool largely assumed there were no more than 250 animals, nearly 600 called the area home at least temporarily during much of 2008.

For years, other researchers have largely focused on other seal populations rather than wade into the long-running controversy at the Children’s Pool, Moore said.

If fully utilized, Moore said the Children’s Pool and thus San Diego could be a standout spot for scientists to study harbor seals given the large population in an area that’s easily accessible to humans.

He couldn’t speak to how the seal cam might affect San Diego’s status as a research hub.

“There is certainly room there to be a unique, one-of-a-kind seal research center,” Moore said. “The location of the seals themselves is incredible.”

But the seal cam, and its potential, hasn’t yet made San Diego an “internationally known center for seal research,” as the mayor claimed.

And his office didn’t respond to requests for further details that might back up the mayor’s statement.

We dub a claim huckster propaganda when it’s not only inaccurate but it’s reasonable to expect the person making it knew that and made the claim anyway to gain an advantage.

This ruling applies here because the seal cam has generated some national attention — but that was focused on footage of cruel behavior that went viral, not on pioneering seal research. Filner should know this.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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