A Harbor Seal Mystery

In happier days harbor seals lounged on a haul-out off a pier near the USS Hornet; the haul-out has since washed away. Photo by Richard Bangert

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.

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 they 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 part of the dock, where the seals rested, broke away and drifted to the shoreline of Breakwater Beach next to the Encinal Boat Ramp.

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.

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.

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.

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 800-853-1964. Callers may remain anonymous. It’s the least we can do to promote the sustained health and conservation of harbor seals.

Read more of Irene Dieter’s writings at islesay.wordpress.com