Hope Floats for Alameda’s Harbor Seals

Alameda’s harbor seal working group proposes a solution to entice the Island’s pinniped population to hang around despite disruption by the ferry authority’s new digs.


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Photo by Mark Klein

Mark Klein photographed this kayaker, whose close proximity frightened and ultimately rousted resting harbor seals. 

 

A stone’s throw from the USS Hornet at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, six harbor seals, including one silvery pup, nap on a dilapidated dock in a sheltered harbor. A dog barks on the adjacent Bay Trail, and the seals raise their heads, then resume napping. They are blissfully unaware that the dock where they are resting will be demolished next year to make way for a regional ferry facility.

Seal supporters worry that these doe-eyed marine mammals will abandon the area once the sinking dock where they haul out each day is demolished to make way for the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority’s new facility. The ferry authority plans to construct a four-story building, diesel fuel storage tanks, and a work yard at the intersection of West Hornet and Ferry Point streets and install a 12-berth ferry slip. It will extend from the ferry facility into San Francisco Bay, disrupting the seals’ tranquil hangout, also known as a haul-out.
Hauling-out is a behavior in which seals temporarily leave the water to rest, regulate body temperature, avoid predators, and sometimes give birth. “Their blubber is not thick enough to let them to be in the water for long periods,” explained ecologist Sarah Allen, who works for the National Park Service. Allen said that harbor seals favor low-sloping substrates like sandbars, offshore rocks, and man-made structures, as haul-outs. But while seals have hauled out in Alameda for decades, they haven’t always frequented this particular dock at Alameda Point.

In response to public pressure over ousting the seals from their established perch, in March the ferry authority earmarked $100,000 for a replacement docking structure. Some had hoped the seal presence would derail the ferry project altogether. But with the ferry lease approved and money set aside for a new dock, the question then became where to build the alternative haul-out.
Seven citizen activists were tapped to serve on a harbor seal working group to make recommendations. The group’s primary objective is to find a replacement haul-out site by spring 2016—a target date that gives the seals the opportunity to acclimate to the new haul-out after pupping season ends and before demolition of the dock begins next year.
There is no guarantee that the harbor seals will remain, even if a new haul-out is built. Yet recent developments have group members feeling optimistic about persuading Alameda’s beloved seals to stay. That’s because a seal expert, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories director Jim Harvey, recommended in May that a replacement haul-out be installed east of the new facility about 100 yards or more from the shore: This means it will remain within the seal’s favored harbor.

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