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Saving a Safe Spot for Alameda's Harbor Seals

Site of the proposed San Francisco Bay Ferry maintenance and operations center at Alameda Point, showing (orange text, from left) the USS Hornet Museum, the area of the operations building and ferry berths, and the harbor seal haul-out dock.
Site of the proposed San Francisco Bay Ferry maintenance and operations center at Alameda Point, showing (orange text, from left) the USS Hornet Museum, the area of the operations building and ferry berths, and the harbor seal haul-out dock.
If Alameda's small colony of Pacific harbor seals keeps a safe spot to soak up the sun, rest between dives and perhaps produce a pup or two, the credit will go to local environmentalist Richard Bangert.

Bangert has been the main person — the only one, really — to alert the Water Emergency Transit Authority (WETA) to the presence of a regular haul-out spot for the seals at Alameda Point. 

The haul-out, a decades-old pier left over from Naval Air Station Alameda days, would be demolished under WETA's current plans for a ferry maintenance and operations center at the Point. (WETA operates the San Francisco Bay Ferry system.)

But that could change, according to Michael Gougherty, senior planner at WETA.

"It's honestly the first time the haul-out has been on our radar," Gougherty told Alameda Patch by phone on Friday.

He said environmental reviews of the WETA project didn't note the presence of the seals and their haul-out spot. It wasn't until the last few weeks, when Bangert alerted WETA staff, that the agency was aware of the spot. (The EIR did cite occasional use by harbor seals of Breakwater Island further out in the channel.)

Plans for the ferry center — a four-story building on a four-acre site that's owned by the City of Alameda, plus berthing facilities for 12 ferries — call for removing a number of old piers, many of them underwater. Those include the small pier, just above water level, that's used regularly by about eight harbor seals.

Bangert would like to see WETA provide a floating platform that could be used by both the seals and by seabirds. He's concerned about maintaining a haul-out space both during construction and after the ferry center is completed.

Gougherty said Friday, "We can't speak to the feasibility yet, but I'm hoping we can look into this and see if there's a way it can be done easily. Common sense would dictate that if we can do anything, we should."

He said the project is still in the early stages of approval. It's being considered by the Design Review Board of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) tonight, but it will be another one to three monhs before the full commission considers the proposal, Gougherty said.

Bangert is a local painting contractor who reports regularly on land use, wildlife and toxic waste clean-up through his blog, the Alameda Point Environmental Report. He also blogs for Alameda Patch regularly and writes for the Alameda Sun.

He says that lately he's seen seals on the haul-out dock on a daily basis. He says that they may form something of a family group, as there are usually seals of different sizes (and, presumably, ages).

The Alameda group is small enough that it doesn't show on a map of harbor seal haul-out sites prepared by Save the Bay. Most of those sites are clustered between San Francisco and Marin County, while two sloughs near Newark are primary pupping areas for the Bay's seals.

According to an undated report from Earth Island Institute's San Francisco Bay Seal Project, the number of Pacific harbor seals in the Bay has remained relatively steady since the early 1970s, although the seal population has increased elsewhere along the California coast.

Under both the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and state law, it is illegal to disturb resting harbor seals. The seals are more easily disturbed by human activity than their boisterous "cousins," the sea lions, so boaters are asked to give them a wide berth.

Related articles:

"Alameda Point Ferry Facility Hearing - January 6th"

For more information about WETA and Pacific harbor seals:

http://www.watertransit.org/

Alameda Point Environmental Report

Marine Mammal Center: Pacific Harbor Seal

Save the Bay: Protecting Harbor Seals in San Francisco Bay

High Time For Harbor Seal Pupping: Experts Say Give These Shy Animals a Wide Berth (Bay Nature, April 2011)

Scientists focus on harbor seals as 'samplers of the environment' (San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 4, 2014)

'Like' Alameda Patch on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter @AlamedaPatch / Share your thoughts in the comments section below
Jack Mingo January 06, 2014 at 11:04 AM
I heard about the plans to build only yesterday, and immediately thought of the longtime harbor seal colony. They have lived full time on that dock for several years, and (since the birth of six very cute babies) now number more than the eight mentioned. They are easily disturbed by boats (and even some idiot I came upon swimming toward them a month ago). The adults jump into the water, leaving the distressed pups behind. I would hate to see Alameda's only harbor seal colony driven off or harmed.
I saw a picture taken by Richard of some man in the water with the seals. Richard accidentally refers to the seal as a sea lion, but corrects that in a later tweet.I don't know if this is the same idiot that you saw, Jack. Let's hope there's not more than one. https://twitter.com/AlamedaPtEnviro/status/407549667186978817/photo/1
Captain Soggy January 06, 2014 at 11:48 AM
I see nothing good about encouraging the Harbor Seals to use a haul-out dock near the developed shore. A Harbor Seal Haul-out dock moored to the jetty south of the proposed facility would make much more sense. The Seals will be better served by giving them a haul-out away from people and predators.
Hans Bockenkamp January 06, 2014 at 01:51 PM
It is disturbing to hear about this Bay Ferry endeavor for the first time from an photographer. At first glance I am thinking Ron Cowen (water Taxi originator) and his crony Don Perata, Alameda latest advisor of Alameda's City Manager for being behind this latest brainstorm. I see and smell a conspiracy.
mr magoo January 06, 2014 at 11:56 PM
I think it's a great place for the ferry as long as they make that big parking lot available for passengers. The sea lions will adapt to change - would be nice to put a float together for them. I used to jog out there 3-4 times a week and only noticed one or 2 small sea lions which seemed transient, sometimes missing for weeks.
Jack Mingo January 07, 2014 at 03:56 AM
The site is on my running route, and I run at all times of daylight. Mornings around 9 and late afternoons are the times when most or all of the adults go fishing, leaving most/all of the six babies behind. The best time to monitor the total numbers is at about 3 pm, when most of both groups are likely to be lolling around in the sun. On last Sunday at that time, the full pod seemed to be there -- 6 pups and 7-8 adults.
Allison Martin January 07, 2014 at 04:09 AM
Thank you Richard Bangert for bringing this to the attention of WETA. I hope a good, undisturbed haul out site for the seals can be incorporated into the plans for the ferry center.
Richard Bangert January 07, 2014 at 11:50 AM
Here is what I heard from the environmental consultant for the water transit authority (WETA) at last night's hearing: "Given enough time, the platform the seals are using would probably sink anyway." He didn't see it as a big deal that they would move on after the dock was removed later this year for construction to begin. He minimized their presence in saying it's just a quirk that they arrived in the first place. Such an outlook ignores the fact that the history of the Bay didn't start in 1940. While the members of the BCDC Design Review Board listened intently as I made my pitch, with one board member commenting on how he likes the sound of seals near wherever he lives, they did not see how the seal issue was part of their mission in evaluating design of shoreline facilities. Accommodating the harbor seals will not be simple, in my opinion, but it is doable. Setting up a seal dock elsewhere in the harbor will mean that canoe and kayak users who love to launch from the beach will then have to steer clear of the new platform. Right now the old dock is adequately distant from the recreational traffic route. Another solution would be to modify part of Breakwater Island, which is the stand alone part of the breakwater system. The main problem with maximizing our marine ecosystem, for wildlife and for recreational use, is that the money and management requirements are way out of our league for a city the size of Alameda. Regional, state, and national assistance is called for.
mr magoo January 07, 2014 at 02:43 PM
Just thinkin - the boat ramp at encinal high keeps self destructing probably because it doesn't have a nearby breakwater protecting it from the westerly chop. could a seal dock also be a breakwater for that dock? the business case would be easier to justify.
Michael John Torrey January 07, 2014 at 05:11 PM
Attn: Dixie Jordan Date: January 07, 2014 Remember "Action Speaks Louder Than Words" Continuing to talk about it will accomplish nothing. As progress moves forward time will wait for no one to finish talking. Michael John Torrey E-Mail-mjohntorrey54@yahoo.com Alameda, CA. 94501-1875

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