Nature Feels S.F.’s Building Boom

Environmental monitors protect San Francisco Bay's fragile ecosystem as we build, build, and build.

Across from a large platform bustling with construction workers near the Ferry Building, two women sit in orange vests next to a tripod. Their job isn’t to hammer or chisel or spackle, but to watch out for endangered sea life.

Jude Stalker and her colleague are biological monitors, hired by the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, to watch for any endangered marine mammals caught in the construction of the Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal Expansion Project, which includes the creation of three new ferry gates and vessel-berthing facilities.

Not even water itself can stop the current surge of construction in San Francisco. More than 500 building and infrastructure projects are in progress, according to San Francisco Public Works, at a price tag of $5.6 billion. But the natural beauty that draws much of this construction to the Bay Area in the first place needs protection as concrete encroaches on wetlands, and proposed skyscrapers divert avian flight paths.

“Almost 60 years ago, a handful of people put their foot down and said we need to protect this,” says Stalker, 54, who was born in Oakland and grew up in Walnut Creek. “There will always be this contest of how to make the Bay Area good for people and good for wildlife.”

The battle of construction versus wildlife is often rural — such as swallows nesting in highway overpasses, or owls roosting in trees marked for lumber. But San Francisco’s unique ecosystem is flush with life, especially in our natural centerpiece: the Bay. Sinking 20 tons of concrete into this shallow but integral water system can disturb fragile ecosystems that have — so far — adapted to our urban ways.

For the Ferry Terminal Expansion Project, Stalker says that no protected sea animal, such as a sea lion or harbor seal, can be within 10 meters of the platform during work. If she or her colleagues spot one, they call the platform, and work is suspended until there is no nearby sighting of the animal for 15 minutes. “And if they’re dredging the Bay during the herring spawning season,” Stalker says, “we go out on the barge with the workers to keep watch.”

Although the noise from the work is often a deterrent for the sea life, food always wins. If a whole school of jack-smelt come in, Stalker says, the sea lions will follow.

Sea lions in the bay at Fisherman’s Wharf. (Courtesy Photo)

Stalker notes that although humans interpret the world principally through sight, many animals rely mostly on sound and smell. “Seals and sea lion whiskers, or vibrissae, sense tiny vibrations in the water to identify moving prey,” she says. “Their hearing and vision is better underwater, and not so good out of water.”

Most of these protections for seals and sea lions during construction come from the Marine Mammal Protection Act. “They need to haul out on docks and beaches to rest and give birth,” Stalker says. “Any time we are disturbing them, we are taking away from what they need to be doing.” Seals or sea lions startled by loud construction could “send all kinds of adrenaline through them that could have been used in other ways.”

Kevin Connolly, planning and development manager of WETA, and Michael Gougherty, senior planner for the Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal Expansion Project, say that even installing pilings for the ferry terminal can be a delicate affair. The easiest way is with a large impact hammer. But because of the sound sensitivity of marine animals, they use a vibrating hammer that creates less noise.

“Anything being built along the shore adds a lot of issues,” Gougherty says. “On a water project, you have the habitat, plus the species.”

Connolly says they always have two monitors on site during construction. “We’re all fortunate there are these protections,” he says. “The frustration comes when people want more ferries, and we have to say that will take seven years because of all of the reviews and procedures. And long periods of time always add up to bigger expenses in construction.”

One advantage of construction in the Bay is that the ecosystem has learned to adapt to our presence. On another ferry terminal project in Alameda, there was concern for displacing harbor seals, so an old wooden dock was torn down and replaced by a custom-made concrete barge specifically for the sea mammals. “It’s been a huge success,” Connolly says. “They have 70 seals on that barge some days.”

Back at the San Francisco Ferry Terminal work site, Stalker says the warm, coastal water of recent El Niño events meant fewer fish close to shore, which forced California sea lion mothers farther out to sea for fewer fish, leaving young pups for longer periods or abandoning them altogether.

“There’s so much not on our collective radar,” Stalker says about our general perception of the integrated bay ecosystem. “Take sea surface temperature — even a tiny change of temperature will bring large change to marine mammals because the smallest part of the food chain is affected. It’s the cumulative effect of all of these things that really impacts them.”

If a sea lion gets kicked off a haul-in site because of construction in addition to all this stress, the effects could be deadly.

Stalker is pragmatic, but also hopeful about the challenges of a booming Bay Area and a healthy natural ecosystem. She shares a story to make her point: The construction crew was recently demolishing a pier, and two pigeons came flying out, abandoning two infants that were too young to fly. Pigeons are not an endangered species, but Stalker decided she’d let the supervisor know that they were about to kill the infants. “He had his crew members rescue the young birds and made a nesting box with an absorbent pad and duct tape. We put the infants on a high spot where we hoped the parents might come back for them.”

When the parents didn’t return, Stalker brought the baby pigeons to WildCare in San Rafael. “They took them in like I had brought them a baby whale,” Stalker says. “The whole incident convinced me that when we actually encounter and interact with nature, everyone wants to help protect it.”

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