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”

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.

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

Ferry Maintenance Facility Shoreline Public Access Hearing

A public hearing is scheduled for January 6, 2014 in San Francisco to take comments on the proposed facility for Bay ferries at Alameda Point.  It is the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) Design Review Board’s first hearing to determine if the project complies with guidelines for ensuring maximum public shoreline access, preserving scenic views, and enhancing the shoreline visual experience through appropriate design appearance.

WETA artist's drawing - Alameda Point

Located on Hornet Avenue at Ferry Point Road near the U.S.S. Hornet on a four-acre site to be leased from the City of Alameda, the facility will service and maintain ferries owned by the Water Emergency Transit Authority (WETA) operating in the Central Bay.  The project will include a 70-foot-tall four story building for maintenance, dispatch, and administrative tasks, a service yard, and floating berthing facilities for 12 vessels.  Demolition of the old recreational dock and retaining wall, and dredging of the berthing area is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2014.

Ferry mainenance satellite view-blog image copy
Click on image to enlarge.

A variety of activities will take place at the facility, including refueling ferries from new underground fuel tanks, bilge and sewer pump-out, fluid replenishment, repair and replacement of vessel equipment, trash disposal, cleaning and painting of vessels, and storage and replenishment of concessionary items for passengers.

WETA On Site facilities
Click on image to enlarge.

WETA, in consultation with BCDC staff, proposes enhancements to the adjacent park area owned by the city.  The proposal that BCDC is seeking comment on would realign and extend the existing Bay Trail so that it better serves as a connection to the U.S.S. Hornet Museum and the existing public access areas through the maritime ship site to the Seaplane Lagoon.  Approximately 100 feet of the existing trail and path would be removed and replaced with approximately 145 feet of new 10-foot wide trail and path.

According to the BCDC staff report, “In addition, a new 17-foot-wide extension of the Bay Trail would be constructed along the 289-foot northern length of the project site along Hornet Avenue.  This portion of the trail would include a two-foot-wide landscaped area adjacent to the project site, 12 new street trees in three-foot by six-foot tree wells adjacent to a six-inch curb and an 11.5-foot-wide pedestrian and bicycle trail.  Beyond this area and through the Hornet and MARAD [maritime ship] site, signage would indicate the route for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

WETA site plan - Alameda Point
Click on image to enlarge.

The BCDC report continues by saying, “Approximately 6,850 square feet of the park would be landscaped between the realigned trail and the project site, including irrigated turf and low lush planting with a break in the landscaping provided to create ‘windows’ into the work yard.  Interpretive signage would describe the unique working waterfront activities.  Nine trees in three clusters are proposed to better define the spatial qualities of the setting and to provide shade and visual interest.  In addition, six benches are planned along the shoreline.  Opposite the benches will be an interpretive sign describing the role and function of the WETA berthing facilities.”

WETA site adjacent future plans
Click on image to enlarge.

One impact not accounted for in WETA’s state and federal environmental reviews is the displacement of harbor seals when WETA removes the old dock that is used as a haul out.  Constructing an anchored floating platform nearby for harbor seals and birds would make up for the old dock that has served as a wildlife resting site since base closure 16 years ago.  WETA should add a wildlife platform to its budget.  Wildlife and the visiting public will greatly appreciate it.

Harbor Seals on old dock
Harbor Seals on Alameda Point dock in the Spring of 2013. Located on Alameda Point’s south side in the Inner Harbor, the dock will be demolished to build the new ferry maintenance facility. San Francisco Bay is in the background beyond the breakwater. Copyrighted photo by Richard Bangert.

The Monday, January 6, 2014 hearing will be held at the BCDC McAteer-Petris Conference Room, 455 Golden Gate Avenue, Suite 10600, San Francisco.  The hearing begins at 6:30 pm.  For information about the meeting, the public is directed to contact Ellen Miramontes at (415) 352-3643 or ellenm@bcdc.ca.gov.

Background info about the proposed ferry facility is on Alameda Point Info’s Ferry Maintenance Facility site.