Construction of the ferry maintenance facility at Alameda Point is delayed another year. Originally scheduled to begin in August of this year, the project is on hold while the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) seeks a federal permit allowing for harassment of harbor seals during demolition and construction.
The public, beginning in January of 2014, raised concerns about the harbor seals being displaced at the project site. The Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility is slated for construction east of the USS Hornet where the Navy operated a recreational boating dock.
Part of the dock structure has sunk, but the main dock and remnant timbers have attracted harbor seals in recent years that manage to haul themselves up onto the wooden islands to rest. In May 2014, a female harbor seal was observed nursing a pup on the old dock and leading the pup in training exercises around the dock area.
In its permit application published in the Federal Register on September 17, 2014, the description of the type of harassment for which WETA is seeking a permit is limited to sounds emitted during demolition of the existing pilings and hammering in new ones.
The application makes only passing reference to residents having observed seals at the site. The loss of a resting site is not contemplated in the federal review, even though the Marine Mammal Protection Act lists habitat loss as a form of harassment. A haul-out resting site is considered habitat integral to the welfare of seals.
The permit is being processed as part of a federal Environmental Assessment and is being prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The NMFS is an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that enforces the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), as well as aquatic components of the Endangered Species Act.
The permit being applied for by WETA is called an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA). An IHA “Level A” involves injury to a marine mammal. “Level B” involves disruption of behavioral patterns. The WETA permit is Level B.
The preliminary conclusion of NMFS is that no significant impact will occur, especially in light of the acoustical mitigation measures worked out between WETA and NMFS. The mitigation measures call for gradual start-ups to demolition and dock construction work, a sound curtain in the water, and NMFS-approved biological monitors.
Despite the fact that a regular haul-out site will be eliminated with the dock removal, NMFS concludes, “No permanent impacts to marine mammal habitat are proposed to or would occur as a result of the proposed Project.” WETA’s proposed facility “would not modify the existing habitat. Therefore, no restoration of the habitat would be necessary,” stated NMFS.
The most recent harbor seal data for the area cited by NMFS in the application is from 1998. It highlights Breakwater Island, the rocky barrier forming the south side of the Alameda Point Channel, as “the only haul-out site in the Central Bay that is accessible to seals throughout the full tidal range.”
The Alameda Point seals have been seen again in the project area in recent weeks after an absence of a few months, which corresponds with behavior predicted by NMFS. Citing harbor seal research, NMFS stated, “Haul-out sites are relatively consistent from year to year, and females have been recorded returning to their own natal haul-out when breeding.”
The public can submit comments no later than October 17, 2014. Pending review of the comments, the NMFS may impose additional mitigation measures. Comments can be sent via email to: email@example.com. Paper mail to: Jolie Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
WETA will also need a permit from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which follows state rules regarding marine mammal impacts. WETA will be leasing the site from the city, and still needs to conclude a lease agreement and obtain a building permit. Demolition and dredging at the site can only occur between August 1 and November 30 due to foraging by least terns in the spring and summer and fish migration in late fall. The permit is for 2015.
The project was authorized by WETA in 2009 and has been undergoing review ever since. It will include berths for 11 ferries, a service yard and a four-story workshop and administration building. The facility would also function as an emergency operation center for passenger service in the event of an emergency.
Related story: “Ferry Maintenance Facility Shoreline Public Access Hearing”