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Sonoma County Seal Watch - 30 years protecting Harbor Seals

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Sonoma County Seal Watch - 30 years protecting Harbor Seals

By Michele Luna, Executive Director, Steward of the Coast and Redwoods

Seal Watch began in 1985, when Dian Hardy and other local activists from Jenner discovered that the harbor seals at Goat Rock State Beach were in greater danger from beach visitors and unleashed dogs than from the pollution of a recent sewage spill into the Russian River. 

In response to these concerns, they organized and set up four-hour shifts on the beach at the river mouth where they asked visitors to abide by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and stay at least 50 yards from the harbor seals. The group was particularly concerned about disturbing the seals during their pupping season, which begins in March and goes through May each year. 

State Park staff at the time worked with these dedicated volunteers to form a State Park Cooperating Association. They began the work of developing bylaws, articles of incorporation and becoming incorporated as a nonprofit public benefit organization in 1985. By 1986, Stewards of Slavianka was incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. “Slavianka” is the name that 19th century Russian settlers gave to the Russian River. It means “little Slavic dancing girl.” 

Both Seal Watch and Stewards turn 30 years old this year.

Seal Watch and Whale Watch were the first State Park volunteer programs in the Russian River State Park District supported by Stewards. In the late 1980s, volunteers began to organize themselves at Armstrong Redwoods to provide visitor information and to lead school and community tours through the park. I was hired as executive director in 1994 to increase the organization’s ability to raise funds and implement the use of technology for recordkeeping. A co-worker used to remind me that Stewards’ membership was kept track of in a small file box when I was hired. Our membership has now grown to almost 600.  In 2003, the membership voted to change the name to Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods to promote greater name recognition, better convey its service scope, and increase donations to the organization. 

Seal Watch volunteers continue to protect the Russian River harbor seal haulout and educate the public on weekends from March through Labor Day. The harbor seals are particularly vulnerable during their annual pupping season because mothers who are forced to leave their pups may abandon them if they don’t feel safe and/or humans or other animals interfere with their pups.  Good data has been collected about the Russian River harbor seals since 1989, when Elinor Twohy of Jenner started counting the seals at the river mouth daily. Based on consistent data collected about the Harbor Seals since the 1980s, Dr. Joe Mortenson and Stewards published a study in 1994 showing a direct correlation between human interactions and seals flushing into the water to be safe. Over the years, census data has continued to be collected by Dr. Sarah Allen, a biologist with the National Park Service, the Sonoma County Water Agency and NOAA.

In 2009, Stewards began a partnership with the Sonoma County Water Agency to monitor pinnipeds at and near the Russian River mouth in response to the need for a federal permit for incidental harassment of marine mammals during any activities associated with the requirements of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s biological opinion (BO). This includes breaching the river mouth when the river gets to flood stage and when the outlet channel is managed as directed by the BO.  This has provided an opportunity for Stewards volunteers serving as citizen scientists to continue to collect good data about the harbor seal haulout. Dr. Joe Mortenson compiles the data and works with Sonoma County Water Agency staff to analyze the data. There have been over 500 seals counted at one time at the mouth of the river in the years 2000, 2005 and 2009. Currently, they average about 100 – 160 per day.The number of pups born at the Russian River mouth generally varies from 10 to 30 a year. 

Volunteers are always needed for Seal Watch and for the Pinniped Monitoring program. Contact Pete Bidigare, Stewards’ Volunteer Manager at pete@stewardscr.org or (707) 869-9177 x1# if you are interested.  Dr. Sarah Allen helps train volunteers for Stewards and reminds them about the significance of the Jenner Harbor Seal Haulout, the largest in Sonoma County. Dr. Allen praises Seal Watch as “a great and essential program.”

More about Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods

Today, Stewards has grown to be a significant nonprofit organization working to support 23 State Park volunteer programs at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, Austin Creek State Recreation Area and Sonoma Coast State Park. Of all the Cooperating Associations in the state, Stewards ranks in the top ten as far as revenue raised that goes back to supporting State Park programs and education, preservation and restoration efforts. When I was hired, Stewards was raising about $50,000 a year generated from the Armstrong Visitor Center and campfire wood sales. In 2014, Stewards grossed over $680,000 through a diversified fund development plan. 

The nonprofit/public agency partnership between Stewards and State Parks has been a great success and is highlighted in the just-issued California Parks Forward Commission report. In 2012, Stewards began operating Austin Creek State Recreation Area when it was slated to close, and currently operates the entrance station to both Armstrong Redwoods and Austin Creek SRA. In 2014, camping revenue at Bullfrog Pond campground increased by over 90% from 2013 thanks to a new reservation system Stewards put in place with www.hipcamp.com. In 2015, with Stewards’ support, new Harbor Seal interpretive panels will be installed to enhance the education of park visitors at Goat Rock State Beach, the river overlook above Jenner, and the boat launch by the Jenner Visitor Center.  

From its beginnings 30 years ago, Stewards has been an innovative force in providing education about, and protection for, the natural and cultural resources in Russian River area State Parks. (Be on the lookout for the Steward Ship marine mobile education van!) For more information or to become involved, visit the Stewards website at www.stewardscr.org