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”

Seaplane Lagoon ferry service in limbo

The new residential and commercial developer at Alameda Point has set aside $10 million toward the construction of a passenger ferry terminal at the Seaplane Lagoon. The Bay Area’s ferry agency – the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) – however, has made it clear there is currently no funding to operate a ferry there.

WETA “will entirely exhaust its available operating subsidies on an annual basis, relying upon projected increases in ridership and fares to cover increasing operating costs for existing services,” stated a draft 10-year Short Range Transit Plan that WETA issued in January for public comment. “WETA’s ability to increase service levels and meet future demand for ferry service will be restricted until new regional or local sources of operating subsidy are secured,” the draft stated.

Ferry passengers boarding at the Alameda Main Street Terminal bound for San Francisco. The popular Main Street Terminal at the north side of Alameda Point on the Oakland Estuary will continue in operation, even if new ferry service comes to the Seaplane Lagoon. Parking here will be expanded in mid-2016.
Ferry passengers boarding at the Alameda Main Street Terminal bound for San Francisco. The popular Main Street Terminal at the north side of Alameda Point on the Oakland Estuary will continue in operation, even if new ferry service comes to the Seaplane Lagoon. Parking here will be expanded in mid-2016.

WETA’s revenue picture is more limited than other regional transit agencies, such as BART. In WETA’s case, half of its operations funding comes from fares. Most of the other half — $15.3 million — comes from bridge tolls through Regional Measure 2, which was passed in 2005 adding a $1 bridge toll. A Harbor Bay parcel assessment funds 10 percent of the Harbor Bay service.  Continue reading “Seaplane Lagoon ferry service in limbo”

Scouts join volunteer effort for least terns at Alameda Point

Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts were helpful in getting the least tern nesting area ready for the 2015 season.

Cub Scouts distributing oyster shells around the nesting area for the least terns.
Cub Scouts distributing oyster shells around the nesting area for the least terns.

Fifteen boys from Cub Scout Pack 1015 and three boys from Boy Scout Troop 73, along with 18 parent volunteers, came out to the least tern nesting area at Alameda Point on Sunday, April 12. They joined a dozen students from UC Berkeley’s Tau Beta Pi fraternity, and five students from Oakland School for the Arts’ Club Impact and Empowerment. The volunteers put out oyster shells and tern shelters, made fence repairs, and trimmed weeds. It was the final work party before the terns arrive later in April to begin nesting. 

Piles of oyster shells.  Two students mending plastic mesh fencing to keep chicks from wandering through the chain link fence.
Piles of oyster shells. Two students mending plastic mesh fencing to keep chicks from wandering through the chain link fence.

“The older boys in our Webelos Den have been studying the least tern as part of their Naturalist Badge where they study local birds who are endangered, as well studying the local ecosystem and wetlands,” said Dorinda von Stroheim, Bear Den Leader Pack 1015. “The younger scouts are working towards their World Conservation Award where the boys are encouraged to ‘think globally’ and ‘act locally.’”

Least tern adult with chick sitting in a depression in the sand in 2014.
Least tern adult with chick sitting in a depression in the sand in 2014.

When asked what they liked most about their day of volunteering, Dash, age 9, said, “Digging up all the weeds! We did a lot of work but that part was fun!” Will, age 8, said, “I liked putting out the oyster shells the best because the little baby birds will now be protected. Also we saw a big spider!” They also saw some crickets and fence lizards.

The oyster shells are similar in color to a tern chick and make it harder for flying predators to spot them, especially if the chicks hunker down under the flanks of a larger shell. A-frame wooden shelters and terracotta drain tiles also provide shelter from predators and from the sun.

Scouts loading oyster shells

By mid-June, the 9.6-acre sand-covered site could be humming with activity with as many as 300 chicks scampering around waiting for food to arrive. The adults dive for small fish in nearby waters from Alameda Point to Crab Cove.

“The boys felt a big sense of accomplishment being part of the conservation project in April,” said von Stroheim. “It was great to see how even these young boys age 8-12 could contribute in a meaningful way to the work. The parents also enjoyed getting to be part of such an important Alameda project.” The Elks Lodge in Alameda sponsors Cub Scout Pack 1015.

The public will have an opportunity to visit the site on Saturday, June 20. The annual Return of the Terns bus tours leave from the Crab Cove Visitor Center on McKay Avenue following a presentation. Tour times are 11 am, 12:15, and 1:30.

Registration is required via the East Bay Regional Park District’s website. The cost is $11 for adults or $9 for youth (over 8 years).  The tours are co-sponsored by the East Bay Regional Park District and Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Published in the Alameda Sun.

Picking up oyster shells.
Picking up oyster shells.
Volunteers at work.  Looking south.
Volunteers at work. Looking south.
The view toward San Francisco at the start of the volunteer work day.  Lettered and number cinder blocks are used to record nesting activity by a grid system.  Tiles and A-frames were spread around the site for use as shelters.
The view toward San Francisco at the start of the volunteer work day. Lettered and number cinder blocks are used to record nesting activity by a grid system. Tiles and A-frames were spread around the site for use as shelters.
UC Berkeley students trimming tall pampas grass near the nesting site.
UC Berkeley students trimming tall pampas grass near the nesting site.

City blocks car access to Alameda Point waterfront

On Sunday, April 19, Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese drove to the shoreline on the west side of the Seaplane Lagoon, and within minutes of arrival he was ordered to leave the area by Alameda Point security. He was not alone. Anyone visiting the area, which is designated as a future naturalized park on planning maps, was subject to the same experience.

Alameda Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese being ordered to leave the shoreline of Alameda Point by Alameda Point security on Sunday, April 19, 2015.
Alameda Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese being ordered to leave the shoreline of Alameda Point by Alameda Point security on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

The Navy temporarily restricted public access to the area over the last few years because of environmental cleanup, but removed its fencing in mid-March allowing the public to once again visit the waterfront.

Nanette Mocanu, the city’s Economic Development Division Manager, explained that the city immediately re-established the no public access rule because of a case of illegal dumping and evidence of car “side show” activity. “We will be installing our own fencing that will prevent car traffic to the area, except for the tenants,” said Mocanu.  “There will be a pedestrian gate to allow people to walk along the waterfront area.”  

Car tire tracks at Seaplane LagoonAn investigation of the tarmac area revealed a few tire tracks, but otherwise it was clean. Similar displays of tire tracks from “side show” activities appear prominently throughout Alameda Point. Illegal dumping has been a problem at the former Naval Air Station since its closure, concentrated mainly in abandoned housing areas, not on the tarmac.  

Most visitors to the area have one destination in mind, the southern shoreline facing San Francisco Bay. They are usually there for only short periods of time. Under the city’s car restrictions, visitors arriving in cars will have to walk four tenths of a mile across a paved landscape to arrive at the Bay shoreline. Access will be limited to those with the desire and mobility to make the trek out to the shoreline vista point.

Car visitors to shoreline

Matarrese was not pleased with the city’s plan to restrict the area. “I do think there is a better way, like opening and closing the gate at sunrise and sunset, since the guard is out there anyway,” said Matarrese. “I’d even be able to live with the stated restrictions if it meant a concerted effort, with a plan and a timeline, to build the park described in the waterfront plan adopted last year.”

The Town Center and Waterfront Precise Plan, approved by the city council in July 2014, calls for the western side of the Seaplane Lagoon to become “a park for visitors to enjoy nature and appreciate ecologically rich constructed habitat areas.” Referred to as De-Pave Park, it “combines a proactive ecological agenda with a compelling visitor experience by placing a picnic, camping and interpretive program within a large scale sustainable landscape,” states the plan. “The landscape strategy is to transform this vast paved area into a thriving ecology by removing the paving and nurturing ecological succession.”

Published in the Alameda Sun.

Waterfront plan showing proposed natural park on west side (left) of Seaplane Lagoon.
Waterfront plan showing proposed natural park on west side (left) of Seaplane Lagoon.
The distance to walk to the Bay shoreline from the gate, at the west side of Seaplane Lagoon, looking south.
The distance to walk to the Bay shoreline from the gate, at the west side of Seaplane Lagoon, looking south.
Family bicycling to the shoreline on west side of Seaplane Lagoon.
Family bicycling to the shoreline on west side of Seaplane Lagoon.

Cyclists on the shoreline

Mother and son cycling on west side of Seaplane Lagoon.
Mother and son cycling on west side of Seaplane Lagoon.
Two visitors to west side of Seaplane Lagoon shoreline being ordered to leave by security.
Two visitors to west side of Seaplane Lagoon shoreline being ordered to leave by security.
Security guard telling car driver and his friend they had to leave.
Security guard telling car driver and his friend they had to leave.
This driver was approached by security shortly after photo was taken as he was leaving.
This driver was approached by security shortly after photo was taken as he was leaving.

Vista Point

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

Film: “Demilitarized Landscapes” produced for Oakland Museum

“Demilitarized Landscapes” is a nine-minute film about three San Francisco Bay Area communities in which the military has played a major role:  San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, Alameda Point, and the Richmond waterfront.  The film was featured in a special exhibition called “Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay” at the Oakland Museum of California.  The exhibition, which ran from August 31, 2013 to February 23, 2014, explored the impacts of humans and natural forces on San Francisco Bay over the last 6,000 years.

The film played continuously in a special display area titled “Military Landscapes – Demilitarized Landscapes” and shows the transitions being made today.  The Alameda Point segment focuses on the Nature Reserve and the recovery effort for the endangered California Least Tern.

This film is © Oakland Museum of California. All rights reserved. The film appears here by permission. Special thanks to Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California, for facilitating reproduction rights.

 

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.