WETA Seeks Permit to Harass Seals

Photo by Richard Bangert

Harbor seals rest at Alameda Point haul-out where the Water Emergency Transportation Authority is planning to build a ferry facility.

Construction of the Water Emergency Transportation Authority’s (WETA) Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility at Alameda Point has been delayed another year. Originally scheduled to begin last August on West Hornet Avenue near Ferry Point, the project is on hold while WETA seeks a federal permit that allows for harassment of harbor seals during demolition and construction.

In its permit application published in the Federal Register on Sept. 17 WETA described the harassment as sounds emitted during demolition of the existing pilings and hammering in new ones.

In January, the public raised concerns about the project displacing the seals. The facility is slated for construction near the USS Hornet where the Navy once operated a recreational boating dock. Part of the structure has sunk, but the main dock and the remnant timbers have attracted harbor seals in recent years. The seals rest on a spot called a "haul-out." In May 2014, a female harbor seal was observed nursing a pup on the dock and leading her charge in training exercises.

The application makes only passing reference to residents having observed seals at the site. The loss of a resting site is not contemplated in the federal review, even though the Marine Mammal Protection Act lists habitat loss as a form of harassment. A haul-out resting site is considered habitat integral to the welfare of seals.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) — an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that enforces the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) — is preparing the permit as part of a federal environmental assessment. NMFS is an aquatic component of the federal Endangered Species Act.

WETA has applied for a Level B Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) permit. IHA Level A involves injury to a marine mammal. Level B involves disruption of behavioral patterns.

The fisheries service’s preliminary conclusion sees no significant impact on the seals, especially in light of the acoustical mitigation measures it worked out with WETA. The measures call for gradual start-ups to demolition and dock construction work, a sound curtain in the water and NMFS-approved biological monitors.

Despite the elimination of the haul-out with the dock removal, NMFS concluded that there are "no permanent impacts to marine mammal habitat are proposed to or would occur as a result of the proposed project." The fisheries service stated that the proposed facility "would not modify the existing habitat. Therefore, no restoration of the habitat would be necessary."

The most recent harbor seal data for the area NMFS cites data from 1998. The data highlight Breakwater Island, the rocky barrier forming the south side of the Alameda Point Channel, as "the only haul-out site in the Central Bay that is accessible to seals throughout the full tidal range."

The Alameda Point seals have been seen again in the project area in recent weeks after an absence of a few months. This corresponds with behavior that NMFS predicts. Citing harbor seal research, NMFS stated, "Haul-out sites are relatively consistent from year to year, and females have been recorded returning to their own natal haul-out when breeding."

The public can submit comments no later than Oct. 17. Pending review of the comments, NMFS will review the comments and could impose additional mitigation measures. Email comments to: itp.guan@noaa.gov. Submit comments by mail to: Jolie Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

WETA will also need a permit from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which follows state rules regarding marine mammal impacts. WETA will be leasing the site from the city and still needs to conclude a lease agreement and obtain a building permit. Demolition and dredging at the site can only occur between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30 due to foraging by least terns in the spring and summer and fish migration in late fall. The permit is for 2015.

WETA authorized the project in 2009. It will include berths for 11 ferries, a service yard and a four-story workshop and administration building. The facility would also function as an operation center for passenger service in the event of an emergency.

Follow Richard Bangert at http://alamedapointenvironmentalreport.wordpress.com.



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