By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - San Diego's mayor has placed a prime stretch of beach inhabited by seals and the area around it off-limits to the public between sunset and dawn after video footage of two women harassing the marine mammals at night surfaced on the Internet.
Mayor Bob Filner's emergency order, issued on Tuesday, covers a 150-foot-wide swath of sand at the city's La Jolla Cove, which more than 200 harbor seals regularly use for shelter and as a rookery during breeding and pupping season.
The site, dubbed Children's Pool, has been the scene of a protracted battle between wildlife advocates who say the seals are a local asset and tourist attraction that should be protected and opponents who argue the urban beach belongs to humans.
The beach originally was designated as a safe spot for children to swim thanks to an adjacent seawall that generally keeps the surf calm there.
But bacterial levels in the water now often exceed human health standards, authorities warn the public to be careful when seals are present and a rope cordons off a large area frequently occupied by the flippered animals from the rest of the beach.
Live-streaming video from a surveillance camera installed last month at the site showed two women harassing seals by squatting over them, posing for pictures and intentionally chasing away the marine mammals (For YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1d1VhkFbbkc).
Filner said in a statement that he ordered the nighttime closure of the site because of the women "seen on video tape harassing, taunting and causing stress" to seals there.
"The behavior was shocking, reprehensible and certainly not a reflection of how most citizens in our fine city believe animals should be treated," the mayor said.
Wildlife group Western Alliance for Nature donated $40,000 to pay for installation of the camera. Sara Wan, co-founder of the group, said video footage has captured other bad human behavior aside from that of the two women.
"We applaud the mayor for his decision," Wan said. "This is a very critical time, when moms are giving birth and bonding with their pups."
Local spear-fishing enthusiasts oppose protecting the seals, which they see as an attempt by the mayor and environmentalists to block access to a public beach. Ryan Sweeney, a local diver, said he was organizing a protest against the closure.
"It is unacceptable (for the mayor) to disregard proper city procedures and do whatever he wants," he said. "We love the seals, we love swimming with them, and we believe shared use of the beach and water works."
Wan said the nearest seal rookery to Children's Pool is 200 miles north in Ventura County, citing that as a key reason the seals at Children's Pool should be protected.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Cynthia Johnston and Phil Berlowitz)