D is for Displaced – A harbor seal mystery

Part of a dock that was home to harbor seals at Alameda Point has mysteriously drifted ashore, just as a construction project is about to begin. Something’s fishy.

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The old wooden Navy recreational dock between the USS Hornet and Enterprise Park is where numerous harbor seals often climb out of the water to rest. Such resting places, usually beaches, are called haul outs, where the seals haul themselves out of the water. It is located exactly where the Water Emergency Transit Authority (WETA) is planning to build its ferry maintenance facility. WETA was made aware of the harbor seal habitat back in January by Alameda residents and was asked to mitigate the pending habitat loss before construction, which is slated to begin this summer.

A few weeks ago, a boom (a barrier in the water typically used to catch floating debris or to obstruct passage) was placed around the site. The boom was later removed and the section of the dock, where the seals rested, broke away and drifted to the shoreline of Breakwater Beach next to the Encinal Boat Ramp.  Coincidence?

Anyone can go see the structure on the beach. The ropes are still hanging from it and appear to have been cut. If that’s the case, the seals’ home was destroyed on purpose and a federal crime has been committed.

Boom near dock

Who put the boom in place and later removed it, and on whose order? Someone needs to answer this question. WETA says they know nothing about it, and neither does the city.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, seals are federally protected animals because of their decline in population. Whoever interferes with their well-being could face legal penalties. The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) enforces marine mammal protection.

Mother nursing pup

Some seals have refused to leave the location, using the remaining part of the dock, with one corner sagging in the water, as a haul-out. The seals need haul-outs for rest, thermal regulation, social interaction, and to give birth. A mother was recently observed weaning and nursing her pup there.

Pacific harbor seals grow to about 6 feet and 245 pounds, spend about half their time on land and half in water, and may live for 25 to 30 years. They are opportunistic feeders and enjoy protected bays and islands along coastlines, which is why Alameda Point’s inner harbor channel is so attractive to them.  According to the National Park Service, “Their population provides valuable insights into the condition of marine and coastal ecosystems.”

Harbor seals will often curiously watch humans walking by, but are wary of people if approached too closely or disturbed. If disturbed too often, they have been known to abandon favorite haul-out sites or their pups.

Until there’s a full-fledged investigation and a report of findings, I’ll remain suspicious that someone is trying to eliminate the seals from the harbor for the expediency of a construction project.

Anyone with information about this incident can call the NOAA fisheries hotline at 1-800-853-1964. Callers may remain anonymous. It’s the least we can do to promote the sustained health and conservation of harbor seals.

Originally published in Alameda Sun.  See photos below.

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10 Responses to D is for Displaced – A harbor seal mystery

  1. Jack Mingo says:

    Thank you for writing this and to the Sun for publishing it. You found where the dock is, and the ropes appear cut? I have rope, mad Boy Scout rope-tying skills, and a canoe. You want to take a paddle with me?

  2. Rachel Campos de Ivanov says:

    Irene, it was a real pleasure meeting you the other day near the Harbor Seal haul out. THANK YOU for helping to get some front page coverage for the issue. I truly hope this will help to get more citizens of Alameda involved in the issue and find a resolution that will preserve this unique wildlife experience in our urban environment. Job well done!

  3. Ken says:

    I agree with Jack, I say we drag it back out and retie it. Count me in.

  4. Irene says:

    Jack and Ken, I suggest you guys go look at the situation first and see what you’re up against. There are two sections.

    As a political statement it would be impressive and make for a good news story. But keep in mind that the whole dock area will probably be gone by the end of the summer if WETA gets their approvals. Hopefully we can get the approvals to be conditional on providing a new haul out in the harbor.

    Also, since the seals, at least most of them, have managed to make do with the remaining dock, I’m not sure that it’s worth the effort at this point. Plus, moving the old dock pieces back in place could actually disturb the seals, if they are there, and technically speaking would violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

    Another idea would be to create signs and post them on the fencing near the site that says we like our seals and that it’s against the law to wreck their home.

  5. Kerry says:

    Thanks for the Article Irene. I love seeing the seals and they absolutely deserve to keep their habitat. I’m in total support to keep or add “haul out” when community input is requested regarding WETA approval. What if the seals are swimming when Dock is reattached? If we fix something that was already there and theirs??? Kind of a fine line I guess but seems reasonable to me. There are plenty of areas around the old Navy yard and that area should be left alone. I’m happy to post/pay for fliers.

  6. Irene says:

    I returned to the site on Sunday, June 1. Someone has removed the “cut” ropes from the beached dock. More than fishy!

    Here is a link to a flier, if anyone wants to print and post. Or make your own. https://islesay.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/keep-alameda-harbor-seals.pdf

    • Kerry Kohler says:

      I just read today’s article in the Alameda Journal regarding the 3 million dollar Federal grant for the Ferry facilities. Interesting Federal? What about our Federally protected seals? I just emailed congresswoman Barbara Lee asking for support in protecting them.

      • Rachel campos says:

        Kerry, I haven’t had a chance to article you mentioned but did it say anything about the seals? I think the biggest problem is that people didnt/don’t know about them. Now, the project has too much momentum that it would take a monumental effort to save our little seals. I love the sign idea though. It would help with the awareness problem. I also love the idea of reaching out to more of our elected officials. I’m joining your efforts!

  7. Kerry says:

    Sadly nothing about the Seals. There is so much space at the base that it seems do-able to save this little area for them. Having our own Alameda Harbor Seal Habitat would be very special. We have it for birds. I’m writing local City officials too.

  8. Jack Mingo says:

    1. A backhoe moved in today and began removing the concrete in front of the seal dock. The truck that came with it identified the three workers as being from “Langan Treadwell Rollo: Envionmental, Geotechnical, Site/Civil, Seismic, 3D Laser Scanning.” The four young seals there didn’t seem disturbed by the noise and commotion.
    2. I have checked out the seals and the formidable dock fragment you identified as the missing seal platform. Luckily, it is not the piece that was removed. That piece is much smaller and lighter, and is tied floating on the west side of the remaining dock…more indication that it was removed on purpose.
    3. Despite what looks like relative ease in retrieving and replacing it, the problem is finding a time when the seals would all be reliably absent, not wanting to disturb them away permanently, which would be horribly ironic. So far I haven’t found a predictable time, so those plans are on hold for now.

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