Harbor Seals’ Dock, Depot Plans on Track

Richard Bangert Photo. Alameda Point’s resident harbor seals could have a new home designed just for them as early as April.

Harbor Seals’ Dock, Depot Plans on Track

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) is aiming for the delivery of a new dock for harbor seals at Alameda Point as early as April, ahead of the start of construction of its new ferry maintenance facility this summer.

Because the maintenance facility’s new berthing dock would displace the seals’ current resting spot, a provision was approved for a new harbor seal dock as a condition for permitting the new facility. WETA, the City Council, and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) approved the provision at the urging of community activists.

WETA issued design specifications for its 12-berth maintenance facility and administrative offices to prospective contractors in December. It expects to award the contract on March 31, with work commencing as soon as May 6. The estimated cost is pegged at $45 million, $9 million of which is for design work and the remaining $36 million going for construction, according to Chad Mason, senior planner at WETA. Funding for the project is coming from federal, state and regional funds. 

The facility will include a 70-foot-tall four-story building and is expected to be complete in 2018.

The project will also fund other benefits, among them, a new water line from Main Street, park enhancements and sand for the least tern nesting area on the airfield.

WETA will construct a shoreline viewing terrace, bicycle parking, interpretive signage, improved lighting and landscaping and seating on an adjacent half-acre of parkland on West Hornet Avenue. WETA will also be providing some assistance for the California least terns, an endangered bird species that nests at Alameda Point and dives for fish in surrounding waters. 

As a mitigation for the impacts of the new ferry traffic on the terns’ foraging waters, WETA will be delivering enough truckloads of sand to the terns’ nesting area on the airfield in February to add a few inches of depth. Erosion of the 9.6-acre beach-like nesting landscape necessitates periodic replenishment.

The replacement harbor seal dock, also referred to as a haul-out, will be the first time such a structure has been built on San Francisco Bay specifically to retain or attract harbor seals. It will be located a short distance to the east of the old dock. Time will tell whether this experimental effort is successful. 

“Meeting the permitting requirements for the new harbor seal haul-out is underway,” said Mason. BCDC is the state permitting agency for all San Francisco Bay shoreline and in-water projects. The commission requires assurances from other agencies that the harbor seal dock does not introduce any unwanted environmental impacts before granting approval.

“With the help of the environmental consulting firm Dudek, the harbor seal haul-out is on a fast-track approval timeline,” said Mason. “The only regulatory delay is due to the herring spawning season. Regulations require that the pilings for the new haul-out be installed after the end of the herring spawning season in late March.” 

“We are currently reviewing two options for providing the new harbor seal haul-out: Build a new one from scratch, or modify an existing mobile dock if we can find one that meets our needs,” said Mason. “We hope to issue the contract for the haul-out this month.” WETA will be responsible for constructing, maintaining and replacing the harbor seal dock when necessary for the 60-year term of its lease.

WETA has been working with a citizen advisory group of local harbor seal advocates who spearheaded the effort for the new haul-out. The group gained the support of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. The location for the new seal dock was chosen with the help of marine mammal expert Dr. Jim Harvey, director of California State Universities’ Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

This winter, the seals favor the afternoon for getting out of the water. Their numbers can vary from a dozen to a recent high of more than three dozen. It is the only haul-out site in the East Bay between Yerba Buena Island and the marshlands of Fremont and Newark near the Dumbarton Bridge, both of which require watercraft for public viewing access. The seals at Alameda Point can be viewed from the Bay Trail.

Richard Bangert posts stories and photos on his online Alameda Point Environmental Report.