Harbor seals adapting to new float

A new concrete float for harbor seals was delivered to Alameda Point on June 22. It is the first-of-its-kind on the West Coast. With seals starting to use the new platform, a milestone has been reached culminating two-and-a-half years of citizen advocacy to maintain a resting site for harbor seals at Alameda Point. A ferry maintenance facility is slated to begin construction this summer where the seals have been finding solitude for over a decade. The new float will be anchored 300 yards away to the east.

Harbor seals on new float Alameda

In an effort to acclimate the seals to their new float and surroundings, the float is being moved in stages to its permanent location. It will be anchored a hundred yards offshore from the Bay Trail near the soccer field on West Hornet Avenue. Continue reading “Harbor seals adapting to new float”

Marine ecosystem thrives at Alameda Point

Conservation of wildlife isn’t just important at Crab Cove 

Visitors flock to Crab Cove, a State Marine Conservation Area, to learn about and experience the Bay’s sea dwellers. The educational lessons at the Crab Cove Visitor Center are equally relevant throughout the waterway south of the USS Hornet at Alameda Point where even more creatures thrive in relative obscurity.

The area encompasses an interconnected web of vegetation, birds, seals, fish, mollusks, crustaceans and worms. Ghost shrimp, bat rays, leopard sharks, striped crabs, mussels, California sea hares and fish with light-emitting diodes are just a sampling. A 36-foot-wide rock wall, known as a breakwater and built by the Navy in 1945, forms the mile-long southern boundary.

Ghost shrimp at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point. Red spots on shrimp are baby shrimp. Click on photo to enlarge.
Ghost shrimp at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point. Red spots on shrimp are baby shrimp. Click on photo to enlarge.

Continue reading “Marine ecosystem thrives at Alameda Point”

Ferry agency, volunteers help the least terns

Three thousand tons of sand was added to the nesting grounds for the least terns at Alameda Point in late February and early March. In the weeks that followed, volunteers from St. George Spirits and the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts came out to help make the site ready for the arrival of the terns in mid-April.

Sand being delivered to the least tern nesting grounds at Alameda Point on February 25, 2016. Bay Bridge in the background.
Sand being delivered to the least tern nesting grounds at Alameda Point on February 25, 2016. Bay Bridge in the background.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) paid for enough sand to cover half of the 9.6-acre nesting area with three inches of sand, as well as for grading. The weeklong delivery of sand was a conservation mitigation requirement for the impact that WETA’s new ferry maintenance facility will have on the terns’ feeding area. As many as 12 ferries will make up to four passes per weekday through the Alameda Point Channel where the terns frequently dive for small fish.

Wind and water erosion take their toll on the sand substrate lying atop old airfield taxiway pavement, requiring periodic replenishment. This latest delivery of Angel Island coarse sand has built up the sand depth on much of the site to the point that it’s starting to feel like a real beach underfoot. Beaches are the traditional nesting habitat for terns. Continue reading “Ferry agency, volunteers help the least terns”

Harbor seal dock, ferry depot plans on track

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) is aiming for the delivery of a new dock for harbor seals at Alameda Point as early as April, ahead of the start of construction of its new ferry maintenance facility this summer.

Harbor seals on old dock

Because the maintenance facility’s new berthing dock would displace the seals’ current resting spot, a provision was approved for a new harbor seal dock as a condition for permitting the new facility. WETA, the city council, and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) approved the provision at the urging of community activists.

WETA issued design specifications for its 12-berth maintenance facility and administrative offices to prospective contractors in December. It expects to award the contract on March 31, with work commencing as soon as May 6. The estimated cost is pegged at $45 million, $9 million of which is for design work and the remaining $36 million going for construction, according to Chad Mason, senior planner at WETA. Funding for the project is coming from federal, state, and regional funds.

The facility will include a 70-foot-tall four-story building and is expected to be complete in 2018.

The project will also fund other benefits, among them, a new water line from Main Street, park enhancements, and sand for the least tern nesting area on the airfield.

WETA artist's drawing - Alameda Point

WETA will construct a shoreline viewing terrace, bicycle parking, interpretive signage, improved lighting and landscaping, and seating on an adjacent half-acre of parkland on West Hornet Avenue.

WETA will also be providing some assistance for the California least terns, an endangered bird species that nests at Alameda Point and dives for fish in surrounding waters. As a mitigation for the impacts of the new ferry traffic on the terns’ foraging waters, WETA will be delivering enough truckloads of sand to the terns’ nesting area on the airfield in February to add a few inches of depth. Erosion of the 9.6-acre beach-like nesting landscape necessitates periodic replenishment.

The replacement harbor seal dock, also referred to as a haul-out, will be the first time such a structure has been built on San Francisco Bay specifically to retain or attract harbor seals. It will be located a short distance to the east of the old dock. Time will tell whether this experimental effort is successful.

Young harbor seals Alameda Point Dec. 30, 2015

“Meeting the permitting requirements for the new harbor seal haul-out is underway,” said Mason. BCDC is the state permitting agency for all Bay shoreline and in-water projects. It requires assurances from other agencies that the harbor seal dock does not introduce any unwanted environmental impacts before granting approval.

“With the help of the environmental consulting firm Dudek, the harbor seal haul-out is on a fast-track approval timeline,” said Mason. “The only regulatory delay is due to the herring spawning season. Regulations require that the pilings for the new haul-out be installed after the end of the herring spawning season in late March of 2016.”

Harbor seals near the old dock in December 2015.
Harbor seals near the old dock in December 2015.

“We are currently reviewing two options for providing the new harbor seal haul-out: Build a new one from scratch, or modify an existing mobile dock if we can find one that meets our needs,” said Mason. “We hope to issue the contract for the haul-out in January.” WETA will be responsible for constructing, maintaining and replacing the harbor seal dock when necessary for the 60-year term of its lease.

WETA has been working with a citizen advisory group of local harbor seal advocates who spearheaded the effort for the new haul-out. The group gained the support of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. The location for the new seal dock was chosen with the help of marine mammal expert Dr. Jim Harvey, Director of California State Universities’ Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

Alameda Point south with harbor seal haul-out

This winter, the seals favor the afternoon for getting out of the water. Their numbers can vary from a dozen to a recent high of over three dozen. It is the only haul-out site in the East Bay between Yerba Buena Island and the marshlands of Fremont and Newark near the Dumbarton Bridge, both of which require watercraft for public viewing access. The seals at Alameda Point can be viewed from the Bay Trail.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

Additional photos and video

Harbor seals using old plank for hauling out.
Harbor seals using old plank for hauling out.
Harbor seal near old dock in December 2015.
Harbor seal near old dock in December 2015.
Two harbor seals diving together near the old dock in December 2015.
Two harbor seals diving together near the old dock in December 2015.

Brown pelicans display beauty during trying times

About 100 California Brown Pelicans made an unusual appearance on the old wooden dock on the south side of Alameda Point near the U.S.S. Hornet on December 23. The visit provided a rare close-up view of this colorful and iconic bird, but also a reminder of their struggle to survive as a species. Only one of the pelicans could be identified as a one- or two-year-old.

Brown Pelicans resting on old recreational boating dock on south side of Alameda Point in December.
Brown Pelicans resting on old recreational boating dock on south side of Alameda Point in December.

During the past four years, the breeding rate for California Brown Pelicans has been dismal. This recent trend has been directly attributable to the dwindling supply of sardines along the California coast, according to a Brown Pelican status report issued in October by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. The sardine population has dropped so low that in April of 2015, the agency responsible for managing Pacific Coast fisheries banned commercial fishing of sardines until the end of June 2016.

In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urged the same agency to consider additional management measures to stave off a decline in northern anchovy, another important food source for pelicans and other marine life.

California brown pelicans resting on Alameda Point dock

Brown Pelicans were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2009 with great fanfare after recovering from the devastating effects of the agricultural pesticide DDT on their eggs. But they no sooner recovered from chemical contamination than they fell victim to a plunge in food supply.

“Although most essential nesting and roosting habitat throughout the subspecies’ range is protected, the California Brown Pelican has experienced unusual mortality events and a multi-year decline in breeding success since delisting, both of which appear to be due to the lack of adequate forage,” wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Pacific Fishery Management Council on May 14, 2015.

Brown pelicans roosting on the dock

About 10 percent of California Brown Pelicans nest on two islands in Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. The remainder nest and rear their young off the western coast of Mexico.

The University of California at Davis and the Mexican national conservation agency conducted a study of the 2014 nesting season off the coast of Mexico. The U.C. Davis news summary of the study results stated, “The scientists found that this year, areas that typically host hundreds or thousands of nesting pairs held only a few hundred at most, and in some cases zero nesting pairs.” Co-author of the study, U.C. Davis wildlife biologist Dan Anderson, is quoted in the story saying, “That’s what we call a failure, a bust. The bottom dropped out.” Anderson has been monitoring Brown Pelicans for 46 years.

Brown Pelicans soaking up the sun during a rare visit to an old dock on Alameda Point's south shore.
Brown Pelicans soaking up the sun during a rare visit to an old dock on Alameda Point’s south shore.

Breeding normally begins in January. Whether the pelicans currently at Alameda Point will make the journey south is yet to be seen.

Breakwater Island along the south side of the Alameda Point Channel serves as the most popular resting site for Brown Pelicans on San Francisco Bay during the warmer months.

Immature (1 or 2 years old) Brown Pelican with all-brown head and neck, the only one spotted among about 100 pelicans on the dock on December 23, 2015.
Immature (1 or 2 years old) Brown Pelican with all-brown head and neck, the only one spotted among about 100 pelicans on the dock on December 23, 2015.

Immature Brown Pelicans are distinguishable by being entirely brown, except for their whitish underbelly.  By their third year, the neck becomes white and the head yellow.  During breeding season, the neck of adults becomes dark chestnut and the pouch under their bill becomes red. 

Reprinted on Golden Gate Birder, Golden Gate Audubon Society’s blog.

Featured on Bay Nature’s Nature News.

Further reading:

“Periodic Status Review for the Brown Pelican,” October 2015, State of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Failure to launch:  California brown pelicans’ breeding rate dismal,” June 2, 2014, UC Davis News and Information.

“Letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Pacific Fishery Management Council,” May 14, 2015.

Additional photos and video from December 23, 2015, Alameda Point:

California brown pelicans in breeding plumage at Alameda Point

California brown pelicans huddled on the dock

California brown pelican at Alameda Point

California brown pelicans in breeding plumage, Dec. 23, 2015, Alameda Point

Brown pelican stretching at Alameda Point

Policies differ on protecting terns

The annual tours to the least tern colony at Alameda Point were sold out again this year. Three groups totaling about 100 people listened to a presentation about the endangered birds before boarding a bus at the Crab Cove Visitors’ Center.

It is the only time that the general public is permitted to enter the federally owned former aircraft runway area to view the terns nesting. Guests are not allowed to leave the bus.

Least tern tour bus parked next to the nesting area on former Navy airfield.  San Francisco is in the background.
Least tern tour bus parked next to the nesting area on former Navy airfield. San Francisco is in the background.

This once-a-year glimpse of Alameda’s colony, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is very different from the daily opportunities to view the Huntington State Beach least tern colony near Los Angeles, managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Huntington Beach Least Tern Natural Preserve

The 9.6-acre Alameda Point least tern nesting site has a 500-acre buffer zone. During the nesting season, volunteers monitor and record tern behavior and threats from predators, such as hawks and falcons, while sitting in their vehicles.

The 13-acre Huntington State Beach Least Tern Natural Preserve is protected by a 15-foot buffer zone on three sides. The Huntington Beach Bike Trail hugs the fourth side of the colony, with the busy Pacific Coast Highway only 40 feet away.

Huntington Beach Bike Trail.  Least tern preserve is on the right.  Pacific Coast Highway is about 20 feet to the left and out of view.  City of Newport Beach is in the background.
Huntington Beach Bike Trail. Least tern preserve is on the right. Pacific Coast Highway is about 20 feet to the left and out of view. City of Newport Beach is in the background.

At Huntington State Beach, docents amble around to educate visitors about natural history and conservation while recording observations about predators. Over the recent Memorial Day weekend at Huntington Beach, people casting fishing lines into the ocean, throwing Frisbees, and laying on blankets were often not more than 30 feet from adult least terns loafing and sometimes mating on the beach.

Visitors to Huntington Beach viewing the least tern nesting activity on Memorial Day weekend 2015.
Visitors to Huntington Beach viewing the least tern nesting activity on Memorial Day weekend 2015.

During the non-nesting season in Alameda, volunteers remove weeds by hand, and pick up terracotta tiles, wooden A-frames, and oyster shells used for sheltering the chicks, and then re-distribute them in April before the terns arrive. USFWS sprays an herbicide before the terns arrive to minimize vegetation that sprouts up on the bed of imported sand. This is to help to maintain the look of a beach with good sight lines preferred by terns.

At the Huntington Beach Preserve, the state park department stopped using shelters. They, too, use an herbicide, but only for grasses. The low-growing flowering vegetation on this natural beach is allowed to remain and serves as camouflage for nesting adults and for the chicks when they hatch.

Least tern sitting on eggs at Huntington State Beach.  The nest is simply a depression in the sand.  The vegetation is not part of the nest.
Least tern sitting on eggs at Huntington State Beach. The nest is simply a depression in the sand. The vegetation is not part of the nest.

At Huntington Beach, certified volunteers count the nests, eggs and chicks twice a week. They walk through the site inside of sand-colored canvas blinds held together with PVC pipe that they carry. At Alameda Point, the wildlife biologist does not employ the use of a blind.

The Huntington State Beach Least Tern Natural Preserve was established in 1973 as the first fully protected tern colony in California. This preserve implemented the central tenet of the USFWS-approved recovery plan for the least tern by providing a well-defined nesting site that is secure from casual disturbance, primarily by human recreational activity often accompanied by canine companions. The wisdom of this practice is illustrated at Alameda Point: No least terns have ever nested outside of their fence.

The two other determining factors in the breeding success of the terns are the presence of small fish in nearby waters, which can vary due to climate and current, and the presence of predators, which can vary by location. No scientific formula exists to prescribe how far away human activity must be for successful nesting of the terns.

Least tern diving for fish in Alameda Point's Seaplane Lagoon on June 7, 2015 during the nesting season.  Dragon Boat races were occurring nearby.
Least tern diving for fish in Alameda Point’s Seaplane Lagoon on June 7, 2015 during the nesting season. Dragon Boat races were occurring nearby.

This year, as of June 20, there were 500 nests at the Huntington Beach Preserve. Alameda Point had a count of 315. There are 27 sites in California that had 10 or more nesting pairs in 2014. Both Alameda Point and Huntington Beach typically rank in the top five. Huntington Beach least tern nesting news updates are posted on the Sea and Sage Audubon Society website. There are no published news updates or progress reports about Alameda Point least tern nesting activity.

The annual Alameda Point “Return of the Terns” tours happen every June.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

 

Huntington Beach photo gallery

Federal Fisheries Service turns its back on harbor seals at Alameda Point

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS or Fisheries Service) issued a permit to the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) on February 25, 2015, for proposed in-water dock construction activities at Alameda Point that may impact resident harbor seals.

WETA site plan and vicinity Oct. 2014

In its permit, they brushed off concerns of the Sierra Club, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and many residents that removal of the old dock used by harbor seals as a haul out could cause them to abandon the area.

Harbor seals on Alameda Point haul out

The Fisheries Service doesn’t seem bothered that the seals might abandon the area. They suggest the harbor seals could use a nearby rocky breakwater or a beach on Yerba Buena Island about four miles away. The Fisheries Service even went as far as belittling the dock structure and location preferred by the harbor seals as being “artificial” and “manmade,” even though examples of artificial wildlife habitat enhancements are widespread, some of them sanctioned by the Fisheries Service.

Western tip of Breakwater Island where Fisheries Service said harbor seals should go.  This city-owned property is ill-suited to raising seal pups and not inviting as a resting site, as evidenced by where the seals currently go.
Western tip of Breakwater Island where Fisheries Service said harbor seals should go. This city-owned property is ill-suited to raising seal pups and not inviting as a resting site, as evidenced by where the seals currently go.

The Fisheries Service stated, “NMFS does not consider building an artificial harbor seal haul-out is a good conservation measure to compensate for the loss of the old floating dock that is being used as a haul-out by 10-20 harbor seals. The floating dock proposed to be removed is a manmade structure that is bound to disappear as it deteriorates and falls apart. To build another new structure without maintenance will likely have the same issue in the near future. Therefore, NMFS considers it better conservation practice not to construct a new structure just to replace the current deteriorating artificial one.”

The one remaining beam moored to old dock - similar to log booms used by harbor seals elsewhere to haul out.
The one remaining beam moored to old dock – similar to log booms used by harbor seals elsewhere to haul out.

No one suggested that conservation measures come “without maintenance.” Some periodic maintenance would obviously be necessary.

Fisheries Service philosophy out of touch

If “manmade” artificial landscape features were poor conservation measures, then we would have to assume the Fisheries Service would not approve of fish ladders in rivers and streams to aid fish migration. Nor would they have approved of the artificial reef constructed off the coast of Texas using decommissioned and cleaned ships, and decommissioned oil rigs. A thriving marine reef habitat — through artificial means — has been the result.

At Alameda Point, the entire least tern nesting site is artificial, from the imported sand, oyster shells, shelters and fence to the entire land mass underneath it created by filling in a marsh. Likewise, the least tern nesting island in the Hayward Shoreline marsh is artificially constructed and may someday be underwater. Both of these artificial sites are successful in aiding endangered birds by replacing habitat lost due to human development and uses.

The Fisheries Service response to the comments on the impacts of the ferry maintenance facility gives the appearance of being out of touch. Instead of calling for a small mitigation measure in the form of a new haul out by the agency that is altering the ecosystem, they have shifted the burden to the harbor seals. This is backwards. It sets the baseline conditions as “tomorrow” rather than “yesterday” before modern development ruined most of the shoreline habitat in the Bay.

But there is still hope. The Alameda City Council will have an opportunity at its Tuesday, March 3 meeting to rectify the pending lease agreement with WETA that fails to include provisions for the harbor seals. And a few weeks later, BCDC will have an opportunity to ensure that its permit for the project contains harbor seal haul-out requirements.

Appendix pelican graphic

Harbor seal feeding on bat ray in Alameda Point Channel where new haul out could potentially be located.
Harbor seal feeding on bat ray in Alameda Point Channel where new haul out could potentially be located.
Breakwater Island landscape that Fisheries Service and city of Alameda say is suitable harbor seal haul-out habitat.
Breakwater Island landscape that Fisheries Service and city of Alameda say is suitable harbor seal haul-out habitat.

Sierra Club comment letter to Alameda City Council on WETA lease

BCDC comment letter to National Marine Fisheries Service on WETA permit

Sierra Club comment letter to National Marine Fisheries Service on WETA permit