Poop in paradise: The smell of (environmental) success?
A swanky beach enclave seeks relief from the stench of bird poop, but environmentalists say the guano shows local birds have been brought back from the brink of extinction.
San Diego — La Jolla's jagged coastline is strictly protected by environmental laws to ensure the San Diego community remains the kind of seaside jewel that has attracted swanky restaurants, top-flight hotels and some of the nation's rich and famous, including billionaire businessman Irwin Jacobs and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Tourists flock to the place. So do birds. Lots of birds. And with those birds comes lots of poop.
So rather than gasping in amazement at the beautiful views, some are holding their noses from the stench coming from the droppings that cake coastal rocks and outcroppings near its business district.
"We've had to relocate tables inside because when people go out to the patio, some are like 'Oh my God. I can't handle the smell,'" said Christina Collignon, a hostess at Eddie V's, a steak and seafood restaurant perched on a cliff straight up from the guano-coated rocks.
On a recent afternoon, tourists on spring break walked along the sea wall. Some scrunched up their faces in disgust.
"It smells like something dead," said Meghan Brummett as she looked at the birds with her husband and children. The family was visiting from Brawley, a farming town two hours east of San Diego.
Biologists say the odor is the smell of success: Environmental protections put in place over the past few decades have brought back endangered species.
Cormorants and brown pelicans nearly became extinct in the 1970s because of the pesticide DDT. The brown pelican was taken off the federal endangered species list in 2010, and its population, including the Caribbean and Latin America, is estimated at more than 650,000. The total U.S. cormorant population is about 2 million.
La Jolla is a state-designated area of "special biological significance." That means California strictly regulates its waters to protect its abundant marine life, which also attracts birds.
"We're kind of a victim of our own success," said Robert Pitman, a marine biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla. "We've provided a lot of bird protections so now we're getting a lot of birds. I think we're going to be seeing more of these conflicts come about, and I think we'll have to deal with them on a case-by-case basis. I think there'll have to be compromises all around."
In Canada, guano from cormorants has been blamed for the destruction of native vegetation, while in Mississippi, catfish farmers loathe the sleek, black birds because their keen fishing skills cost them millions every year.
In La Jolla, the birds took over the rocks after the city prohibited people from walking there years ago for safety reasons. There has been little rain to wash away the feces.
George Hauer, who owns the gourmet restaurant George's At The Cove, launched an online petition that has garnered more than 1500 signatures. It states: "The cormorant colony at the La Jolla cove has reached critical mass with their excrement. The smell is overtaking the entire village. The result is a loss of business and a potential public health disaster."
Any cleaning method will require a permit, city officials say. The area is regulated by several government agencies. Washing it with a non-toxic solution would cause concern because of the run off into the ocean, state officials say. Even using just water could cause problems since guano discharged into the ocean in high concentrations would be considered a pollutant.
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner — lauded by animal lovers for placing a security camera at a nearby beach to catch anyone harassing seals there — has promised to find a fix. He wants something a solution before summer arrives and tourism peaks. He's suggesting the rocks be "vacuumed," but hasn't supplied details.
Pitman said vacuuming would not work. He personally recommends something simpler: Sounding a horn over a period of weeks to scare off the birds.
Jessica Manns said it would be a shame to see the birds relocate.
"I think they are a tourist attraction and this is a tourist area so it probably wouldn't be a good idea to try to get rid of them," said Manns, a waitress who often hears complaints about the stench wafting by the seaside tables at the Goldfish Point Cafe.
On a recent afternoon, nearby tourists snapped photos of the cormorants and pelicans standing stoically on their droppings next to seals, basking in the sun.
"I guess it's the price you have to pay for having a locale this close to paradise," said waiter Anton Marek. "I wish there was something we could do about it honestly, but it's also a part of nature. People come here because they want to see nature."
He added with a shrug, "Poop is a part of nature."