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.

Ghost shrimp are seldom seen, since they spend most of their lives in tunnels constantly digging and filtering the sandy mud for nutrients. But the evidence of their presence is plain to see during low tide at the mudflat west of the Encinal Boat Ramp. Thousands of small mud mounds dotting the landscape have an opening in the center leading down into the shrimp burrow.

Mudflat at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point, during low tide showing shrimp burrows.
Mudflat at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point, during low tide showing shrimp burrows.

The shrimps’ perpetual mining and aeration of the mud makes the environment attractive to other species as well, such as the arrow goby. These tiny fish are only a few inches long and almost completely transparent. They share the burrows with the shrimp. At low tide they can be seen darting around in shallow pools of water in the sand. Occasionally least terns dive to grab a goby.

Two arrow gobies at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point. The gobies take shelter inside of ghost shrimp tunnels and also benefit from the shrimps' feeding activities that release food morsels the fish can eat.
Two arrow gobies at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point. The gobies take shelter inside of ghost shrimp tunnels and also benefit from the shrimps’ feeding activities that release food morsels the fish can eat.

Lugworm at Breakwater Beach, Alameda PointA neighbor of the shrimp and gobies is the lugworm or sandworm. They, too, are seldom seen, but at low tide their ropey casings of excavated sand and mud are a clear sign of their presence. Another sign of their presence in recent weeks are the almost clear egg sacs. At low tide they look like deflated balloons that washed ashore. But when submersed in water, it becomes apparent that the egg sacs are tethered to the worms’ tunnels. The jelly sac keeps the eggs moist at low tide.

Lugworm egg sacs on Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
Lugworm egg sacs on Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.

Another seldom seen creature is the foot-long California sea hare or sea slug. Their brownish color and slow movement makes them difficult to spot, even when they venture among the rocks near the water surface. During egg-laying season, a clue to their presence is the large bright yellow clumps of eggs deposited on the rocks, which look like angel hair pasta. 

CA sea hare, or sea slug, foraging for food on rocky shoreline next to Bay Trail.
CA sea hare, or sea slug, foraging for food on rocky shoreline next to Bay Trail.

Sea vegetation serves as an anchor for herring eggs. Some eggs are churned up by tides and currents during the prolific herring-spawning season and eaten by birds.

Gull with herring eggs attached to shafts of vegetation it retrieved from just below the water surface in Alameda Point harbor.
Gull with herring eggs attached to shafts of vegetation it retrieved from just below the water surface in Alameda Point harbor.

Algae and vegetation on rocks in the tidal zone serve as food for striped crabs, always busy picking away. But crabs will quickly move under a rock if they spot a visitor with one of their eyes that can be raised up out of the socket.

Striped crab on breakwater at Alameda Point.
Striped crab on breakwater at Alameda Point.

Armies of kelp flies walk – not fly – along the waterline on the beach during warm weather waiting for kelp to wash up so they can lay eggs.

Kelp flies on Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
Kelp flies on Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.

Small fish, such as the jack smelt, provide food for the diving California least terns.  Just about any size fish is prey for the California brown pelicans that hang out by the thousands on the section of breakwater surrounded by water known as Breakwater Island.  Fellow marine birds the double-crested cormorants dive deep, chasing down prey by paddling their webbed feet.  Mussels are a delicacy for gulls, which can often be seen hovering and dropping mussels on rocks and pavement to crack open the shell.

Mussels and barnacles on the breakwater at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
Mussels and barnacles on the breakwater at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.

The strangest fish to appear in the channel is the plainfin midshipman. It can create its own light in the deep waters it inhabits during most of the year. Their skin is laced with hundreds of bioluminescent photophores that can help it attract prey, as well as emitting light that matches surrounding water to make it difficult for predators to see.

Cormorant holding plainfin midshipman that it retrieved by diving in the Alameda Point Channel. Dotted lines on underbelly of fish are light-emitting photophores. These fish lay eggs among shoreline rocks and their young are capable of breathing air during low tide before maturing and swimming away. Due to lack of research, it is unknown whether plainfin midshipman lay eggs at Alameda Point. Other smaller and easier to swallow plainfin midshipman were caught by this cormorant.
Cormorant holding plainfin midshipman that it retrieved by diving in the Alameda Point Channel. Dotted lines on underbelly of fish are light-emitting photophores. These fish lay eggs among shoreline rocks and their young are capable of breathing air during low tide before maturing and swimming away. Due to lack of research, it is unknown whether plainfin midshipman lay eggs at Alameda Point. Other smaller and easier to swallow plainfin midshipman were caught by this cormorant.

The leopard shark with its large leopard-like brown markings can grow to seven feet in length but is harmless to humans. These fish forage for food in the shallow intertidal zone going after crabs, shrimp, worms, other fish and fish eggs.

Leopard shark next to breakwater at Alameda Point.
Leopard shark next to breakwater at Alameda Point.

A gracefully beautiful fish and a regular at Alameda Point is the bat ray, which feeds along the bottom but can occasionally be seen swimming just below the surface.

Bat ray near Bay Trail at Alameda Point.
Bat ray near Bay Trail at Alameda Point.

A moon jellyfish was recently spotted in Alameda Point waters, drifting along near the surface.

Moon jellyfish drifting at the gap in the breakwater at Alameda Point.
Moon jellyfish drifting at the gap in the breakwater at Alameda Point.

Harbor seals, representing marine mammals, round out the marine life roster. Alameda Point hosts the only harbor seal haul-out in the East Bay between Yerba Buena Island and Fremont.

Harbor seals at Alameda Point at sunrise.
Harbor seals at Alameda Point at sunrise.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

More photos of Alameda Point marine life, with map

Ghost shrimp with eggs at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
Ghost shrimp with eggs at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
Red objects on ghost shrimp are baby ghost shrimp, at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
Red objects on ghost shrimp are baby ghost shrimp, at Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
CA sea hare, or sea slug, foraging along rocky shoreline next to Bay Trail at Alameda Point.
CA sea hare, or sea slug, foraging along rocky shoreline next to Bay Trail at Alameda Point.
CA sea hare (rear view) with yellow strands of eggs recently deposited on the breakwater.
CA sea hare (rear view) with yellow strands of eggs recently deposited on the breakwater.
Closeup showing individual CA sea hare eggs at Alameda Point.
Closeup showing individual CA sea hare eggs at Alameda Point.
School of anchovies at shoreline next to Bay Trail.
School of anchovies at shoreline next to Bay Trail.
Tube worm on Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
Tube worm on Breakwater Beach, Alameda Point.
Jack smelt caught by fisherman at Alameda Point breakwater to use as bait.
Jack smelt caught by fisherman at Alameda Point breakwater to use as bait.
Two striped crabs eating vegetation on the breakwater at Alameda Point.
Two striped crabs eating vegetation on the breakwater at Alameda Point.

Alameda Point waterway

California Brown Pelicans roosting at Alameda Point

L-shaped Breakwater Island – largest brown pelican roosting site in San Francisco Bay – with San Francisco in background. Breakwater rocks in foreground extend back to Encinal Boat Ramp.  Former Naval Air Station is located to the right.

The successful recovery effort for the once endangered California brown pelican is evident every summer through fall on Breakwater Island, an area which forms the beginning of the Alameda Point Channel leading to the ship docks and Seaplane Lagoon.  The breakwater is a wall of boulders built up from the Bay floor to reduce wave action in the harbor.

California brown pelicans were listed as an endangered species in 1970.  The pesticide DDT was identified as the cause of their decline.  It caused reproductive harm, and altered the birds’ calcium absorption, which led to thin eggshells that would break under the parents’ weight.  Use of DDT was banned in the United States 1972. 

A recovery effort was launched in the 1970s on Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara. The only breeding colonies of California brown pelicans in the western United States are within Channel Islands National Park on West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands.

California brown pelican preening on Breakwater Island.

In the summer and fall, the brown pelicans can range from nesting colonies in Mexico and the Channel Islands all the way up to British Columbia.  Alameda Point’s Breakwater Island is the largest roosting site in San Francisco Bay. A safe, secure roosting area is essential for pelicans to rest, preen, dry their feathers, maintain body temperature, and socialize.

When the Naval Air Station was still active, the Navy enforced restrictions against boats landing on the Island and posted signs that warn against disturbing the birds.  Since the base closed, there has been no one to enforce regulations against disturbing the pelicans. 

California brown pelicans relaxing on Breakwater Island on sunny fall day. Their mouth sack is the largest of any bird and is used to scoop fish when they plunge into the water.

The California Brown Pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009 after an almost 40-year recovery.  There is currently no plan to look out for the welfare of these magnificent birds after the base is transferred out of Navy ownership.  One way to ensure adequate protection and provide public education and appreciation of this unique ecological asset is to have it be part of an “Alameda Point Wildlife Conservation Area.” The East Bay Regional Park District would be an excellent agency to manage it; they already have a marine conservation area at nearby Crab Cove.

Young California brown pelican with leg band.

Young brown pelican
Old-timer. Brown pelicans can live to 30 years.

Close-up photos of Breakwater Island pelicans were taken in October 2012 from a kayak.

View more Breakwater Island pelican photos in the Flickr photo set.

More information is available on the Channel Islands National Park website.

This story is reprinted on the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s blog Golden Gate Birder.

Update – October 23, 2012

The brown pelican pictured above with a leg band reading “K69” was brought to the International Bird Rescue clinic in Cordelia near Fairfield, CA on July 9, 2012 in a thin and weak condition.  It is less than a year old.  After a one-month rehab, it was released at the Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve near Watsonville on August 10.  A blue band on a pelican leg means it was given a helping hand at one of the two clinics operated by International Bird Rescue – located in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Some of their released pelicans have been spotted in Oregon and Washington.  If you see a pelican with a blue leg band, they’d like to hear about it.

Environmental law group comments on city/VA/East Bay Park District proposal

Alameda Point Open Space:  East Bay Regional Park District’s Emerging Role and Where to Locate the VA Outpatient Facility

Boardwalk through proposed wetlands

Golden Gate University’s Center on Urban Environmental Law (CUEL) recently sent a letter to Robert Doyle, General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD); John Russo, Alameda City Manager; and Larry Janes, Capital Assets Manager for the Veterans Administration Sierra Pacific Network commenting on the ongoing discussion about the location of a VA outpatient clinic at Alameda Point and the management of open space.

In the letter signed by co-director Paul Kibel, he states that a “more expansive role for EBRPD at Alameda Point aligns well and advances several of the proposals in CUEL’s September 2011 Flight Park BookletFirst, consistent with the Hannover Principles on Land Use, granting EBRPD authority to manage open space on both the City and federal portions of Alameda Point will help ensure that such management is based on integrated protection of habitats and viewsheds rather than arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries.”

“Second, and once again consistent with the Hannover Principles, allowing EBRPD to plan open space at Alameda Point on this broader geographic scale will facilitate the creation of self-regulating and self-adjusting habitats and landscapes (that require less maintenance costs down the road).”

Perimeter boardwalk (Bay Trail) through park

“Third, the appointment of one qualified agency (EPRPD) to coordinate and oversee all the wetlands at Alameda Point will help streamline the process for establishing a conservation mitigation bank to fund the design, enhancement and expansion of wetlands resources throughout the entire Alameda Point acreage.”

Unresolved issues – alternative site recommendation

Highlighted parcel at Alameda Point that was offered to the Berkeley Lab for a second campus. USS Hornet and Seaplane Lagoon to the left.

While supportive of locating a VA facility at Alameda Point, CUEL questions the wisdom of locating the VA building facilities on the Northwest Territories due to view impairment, earthquake seismic safety, traffic, and transit accessibility concerns.  They suggest an alternative site:  The one that the city was offering to the Berkeley Lab for its Second Campus. 

March 28, 2012 letter from Center on Urban Environmental Law 

CUEL Flight Park Booklet

Alameda Point Map

Related stories:  

“Landmark Destination Park System for Alameda Point.”

“Wetlands, Trails, Natural Habitat Concept Drawings for Alameda Point.”

“Alameda Wildlife Refuge committee touts benefits of VA/parkland deal.”

“East Bay Regional Park District Spearheads City/VA Parkland Deal.”

“Greenspace Becomes Us.”

Wetlands, Trails, Natural Habitat Concept Drawings for Alameda Point

Proposed Flight Park and Wetlands

The borderless ecosystem – On September 1, 2011, Golden Gate University’s Center on Environmental Law published their proposal for a unified planning process and expansive view for open space at Alameda Point.  The central theme of their effort is that the true potential for conservation at Alameda Point lies in thinking of the area as one contiguous ecosystem of land and water.  In doing so, not only is there benefit to wildlife and the environment in general, there is also benefit to our efforts at economic development by making Alameda Point a highly desirable location with a signature identity – Flight Park.

Perimeter boardwalk (Bay Trail) through park

Flight Park is their suggested name for a unified open space system that would bring to mind larger-scale landmark open space systems like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Bringing together regional, state, and federal agencies to adopt and implement conservation efforts will be far more effective in the long run than waiting for, say, the VA to appropriate money for habitat conservation (not their core mission), or the city of Alameda getting enough attention to secure millions in wetlands monies. 

Moving the VA facilities – Perhaps the most controversial proposal within the Flight Park concept is moving the proposed VA facilities off of the Wildlife Refuge to a spot further east at Alameda Point.  While coming late in the process for transferring land to the VA, it is not without merit.  The Golden Gate Audubon Society has long opposed the sighting of VA buildings on the Wildlife Refuge as an intrusion into the habitat of the endangered California Least Tern.  The Flight Park designers see the VA buildings as a visual obstruction on an otherwise wild and open bay front parcel.

Boardwalk through proposed wetlands

There is good reason for the VA to work with the City of Alameda on moving their buildings, if not their columbarium, closer to the old “Main Gate” on the north side of Alameda Point.  Services will be easier to get to for veterans, and the infrastructure to their site will be less expensive.  There is still time – the VA has not spent their $17 million for this year on design, and therefore they have not requested money for the project in next year’s budget proposal.

The East Bay Regional Park District has been ready and willing to take on the management of regional park facilities at Alameda Point for over a decade.  In 2009 they set aside $6.5 million for Alameda Point shoreline restoration and the Bay Trail.

Existing wetlands on Northwest Territories

Wetlands Mitigation Bank – Professor Paul Kibel, co-director of the Center on Urban and Environmental Law and leader behind the Flight Park concept, argues that there is also funding potential in the creation of a Wetlands Mitigation Bank such as has been created in many California communities to accumulate funds for creating or restoring wetlands.  An experienced environmental lawyer, he has offered to assist the city in any way he can in setting up such a wetlands bank.  One of our first contributions would likely come from the Navy, which will owe us some wetlands due to their coming remediation plans for the Northwest Territories.  Typically, two acres of wetland must be created for each single acre removed.

Seaplane Lagoon grassland promenade with Control Tower converted to nature observation center

In Sum – The Flight Park drawings offer an inspiring look at what could be at Alameda Point.  It is a vision that merges well with recent sustainability presentations that call for diverting storm water to wetlands and marshes at Alameda Point.  Urge our city council to discuss this initiative.  It would build on Alameda’s reputation as a city dedicated to environmental sustainability.

CUEL Booklet on Flight Park at Alameda Point

More images in the Environmental Report’s Flickr gallery.