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Friday, January 9, 2009

Harbor Seals vs. Endangered Coho Salmon at Jenner, CA

Sonoma County's Biological Opinion will change the Russian River Estuary in profound ways as biologists work to save endangered Coho Salmon. Harbor Seals will pay a price at the mouth of the Russian River where it meets the Sea at Jenner.

The Biological Opinion and the Russian River Estuary
By Norma Jellison

Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released its Biological Opinion (BO). The result of 10+ years of studies, the BO proposes a number of actions intended to lead to the recovery of the three salmonid species of the Russian River – coho, Chinook and steelhead. Because certain of the water supply and flood control operations of the Corps of Engineers and Sonoma County Water Agency threaten to jeopardize steelhead and coho, the NMFS has identified actions including reduced river flows and estuary adaptive management. Details of the proposed actions can be found on the SCWA website by clicking on the RRIFR - Russian River Instream Flow Report symbol in the upper left hand corner of the home page.

While the BO is to be implemented over a 15 year period to allow for environmental impact studies of the impacts of the proposals, a key concern is with plans to implement main stem flow reductions and estuary management = discontinuing breaching the sandbar that forms at the river mouth in the immediate future – as early as 2009 and definitely by 2010. While “some form of environmental review” is suggested, the SCWA and NMFS have not committed to a full and robust EIR for the proposed interim or temporary urgency changes.

Unfortunately, the BO does not consider the effects of the proposed actions on any species other than the salmonids. A number of people and organizations are seeking an integrated wholistic approach to the restoration plan which takes into account the rich and varied environment of the Russian River estuary and Goat Rock Beach. Both the estuary and the beach spits at the rivers mouth provide a rich habitat for many endangered, threatened and protected species in addition to the emblematic salmonids.

For 34 years, Harbor Seals have hauled out on the spits of Goat Rock Beach in Jenner, including pupping in the spring. The Jenner haulout is the largest Harbor Seal haulout in Sonoma County. It is also the largest north of Drakes Estero in Marin County to the mouth of the Eel River in Mendocino County. Harbor Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, also administered by NOAA/NMFS.

This Harbor Seal haulout is one of the most intensively studied haulouts in northern California, with a daily census conducted since 1989 by the intrepid Elinor Twohy of Jenner. The site has also census monthly since 1987 by Dr Joe Mortenson who also has included it as part of the regional Harbor Seal census conducted since 1998 in association with Pt Reyes National Seashore. Finally, the site has been part of the state Harbor Seal survey and census effort (1982-1995 and 2004) by NOAA’s NMFS and Southwest Fisheries Science Center et al.

The Harbor Seals were the basis for the formation in 1985 of the Seal Watch program and thus Stewards of Slavianka, the Russian name for the Russian River and the original name for Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. Stewards is the non profit organization that supports the Russian River Division of California State Parks. Annually, Stewards brings hundreds of school children to the Sonoma Coast to experience the ocean environment. Perhaps most importantly, the Harbor Seals serve as ambassadors to the ocean. Thousands of Sonomans and tourists stop at the Route 1 overlook north of Jenner specifically to see the Harbor Seals. For many, the seals provide a link to the otherwise inaccessible marine environment.

The Goat Rock Beach at Jenner is an also an important resting place for local and migratory birds. At times, hundreds of gulls, terns, cormorants and pelicans cover the beach. Some, like the Brown Pelican, are species of special concern. The Brown Pelican was recently removed from the endangered species list, the Endangered Species Act. The Brown Pelican is also a migratory bird, along with other migratory birds such as Heermans gulls, that rest on this beach. Migratory birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Research is beginning to highlight the importance physiologically of resting for birds, just as hauling out is for marine mammals.

Data collected over the years shows that when the river mouth is closed by the sandbar the Harbor Seal numbers decrease substantially. As soon as the mouth is breached, the Harbor Seals return in numbers commensurate to pre sand bar levels. The Harbor Seals haulout on the spit edges along the river near the mouth. This low profile spit habitat provides easy access to the river. This habitat and easy access is especially important when pups are born and taken immediately into the river by the mother, later for pup swimming lessons, and in general for occasional swims when the seals are active during their daytime haulout period. Harbor Seals are nocturnal – feeding in the deep, cold ocean waters at night. Thus, daytime haulout habitat is critical for the species. The low profile beach at Goat Rock also provides ease of access to the ocean, either from haulout locations on the ocean side of the beach or by entering the river and surfing or swimming out into the ocean.

That this Harbor Seal colony is easily disrupted was observed during the five-year period when a maturing male Elephant Seal hauled out on the beach – in the winter/early spring (Dec-Feb) and the late summer/early fall (July-Sept) molt periods. In the final year of his presence – 2007, when he lingered into the breeding season, the haulout population was severely reduced. At that time, the only period when the Harbor Seal numbers were more in the normal range for the site was when the Elephant Seal was not present. That year, he did not return for the molt period, a time when the sandbar tends to consistently form, or in the winter. It is likely that if the sandbar is not breached, given their historic propensity to for the most part abandon the site when the sandbar forms, it highly likely that this historic and significant Harbor Seal colony could disappear.

Prolonged closure of the mouth contributes to disruption of the seals and birds as people walk down the beach and flush the birds and seals. Studies in the mid nineties documented this phenomenon. Signs posted on the beach and the Seal Watch volunteers assist in keeping disruption of the seals to a minimum. Flushing the seals is considered harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. As noted previously, daytime resting is important to both birds and seals.

The estuary also provides important habitat for a number of fish, in addition to salmonids, such as flounder and sculpin. It is also an important habitat for juvenile Dungeness crab. The vibrant estuary contributes to the many birds that feed in the estuary and the ocean off the mouth – Osprey, diving ducks, pelagic birds and those listed previously.

Finally, but no less importantly, there is the concern for water quality in the estuary. Lowered flows and the proposed lagoon associated with no breaching of the sandbar are sure to concentrate pollutants known to be in the river from upstream outflows and land uses. The river side of Goat Rock Beach is used by many visitors to the coast as a safe place to enter the water to wade and swim. Further, the water quality impacts of low flows and pollutant concentration in the lagoon on the fish and other animals and birds that use the river are also of concern. And, while there is a commitment not to allow flooding of homes and businesses in Jenner during the early implementation of the estuary management plan (to begin in 2009 or 2010), the BO does say that if this plan proves successful in aiding the salmonids, commencing in 2014 flood proofing by raising structures or otherwise eliminating flooding impacts are part of the long term plan.

The numerous significant adverse impacts associated with the proposed estuary management plan are such that everyone who lives, recreates, or just plain cares about the Russian River, its estuary and Goat Rock Beach should be closely watching this process. This is not about salmon versus seals and birds. It is a call to take an integrative wholistic approach to salmon recovery that doesn’t sacrifice an incredibly rich diverse environment that is a connection for many people to the otherwise mysterious and inaccessible ocean.

Send your comments to NMFS ( ), and SCWA ( The Sonoma County Supervisors also serve as the Board of the SCWA. The State Water Resources Board is the final arbiter for the interim proposal as well as for the long term plan. Hearings at the SWRCB should be scheduled for the interim proposals in the spring. Updates on hearings and ways to forward comments for consideration before the State Water Resources Control Board will be forthcoming.

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