No vacancy on float for harbor seals

The rain ended, the sun came out, and so did the harbor seals at Alameda Point.  So many of them came out of the water to warm up on their new float on January 5, hardly any of the structure was visible.  The number has many observers asking for a second float.

Seventy harbor seals rest on new float at Alameda Point on January 5, 2017.
Seventy harbor seals rest on new float at Alameda Point on January 5, 2017.

The regional ferry agency installed the new float after removing an old Navy dock used by the seals, in order to make way for a ferry maintenance facility.

“I nearly keeled over when I saw the platform,” said Lisa Haderlie Baker, harbor seal monitor and Alameda resident.  “So many seals packed cheek by jowl, literally, that I had to count them four times using binoculars to make sure there were 60 of them, at least, basking in the sun, which I knew had to be close to a record.  It was a tremendous thrill.”  Continue reading “No vacancy on float for harbor seals”

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.

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

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 agency seeks harbor seal harassment permit

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.

Harbor seals at Alameda Point 2014

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.

14 harbor seals resting on June 4, 2014, at Alameda Point dock where ferry facility is planned.
14 harbor seals resting on June 4, 2014, at Alameda Point dock where ferry facility is planned.

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.

Nursing harbor seal pup - May 2014 - Alameda Point
Nursing harbor seal pup – May 13, 2014 – Alameda Point

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.

Adult harbor seals with silver pup - May 29, 2014
Adult harbor seals with silver pup – May 29, 2014

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.

Silver-colored harbor seal pup nursing on May 13, 2014.
Silver-colored harbor seal pup nursing on May 13, 2014.

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: itp.guan@noaa.gov. 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.

Adult harbor seal with pup at proposed ferry facility site, Alameda Point, May 13, 2014.
Adult harbor seal with pup at proposed ferry facility site, Alameda Point, May 13, 2014.

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.

National Marine Fisheries Service permit page

Federal Register notice

Related story:  “Ferry Maintenance Facility Shoreline Public Access Hearing”

Harbor seal adult and pup

Harbor seal at Alameda Point

Harbor seals on dock remnant at Alameda Point, January 5, 2014.
Harbor seals on dock remnant at Alameda Point, January 5, 2014.

Harbor seal at Alameda Point

Recreational boating dock where harbor seals haul out, as it appeared on May 9, 2014.
Recreational boating dock where harbor seals haul out, as it appeared on May 9, 2014.
Proposed WETA ferry maintenance facility at Alameda Point.
Proposed WETA ferry maintenance facility at Alameda Point.