Estuary News

October 2022

Key Facility’s Fuzzy Future

There are 14 marine laboratories in California. Just one of them is on San Francisco Bay: the Estuary and Ocean Science Center (EOS), on the rugged eastern shore of the Tiburon Peninsula in Marin County. EOS has trained generations of leading figures in estuary science and management. It possesses a site and facilities that no possible alternative could match. The research community swears by it. And in two years it might close.

In the 1970s, after decades as a U.S. Navy property, the 53-acre parcel was considered for inclusion in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Instead, in 1977, it passed—for one dollar—to San Francisco State University (SFSU). But the bargain has devolved into a burden, and today a budget crisis threatens to shut the Center down. Even a land sale, for considerably more than one dollar, is among the options the school is considering.

Approached by car from Highway 101 along winding Paradise Drive (don’t even think about transit), the site seems a little remote. Viewed from a ship or boat, its strategic position is obvious. This is one of three natural deep-water anchorages in the Bay system (the others being Cal Maritime in Vallejo and far inland at Collinsville). In early Navy days the facility supplied coal to a world-traveling fleet; later it built and serviced anti-submarine nets strung under the Golden Gate. Today the center deploys a smaller flotilla: half a dozen research boats that motor out to study sites throughout the Bay and on into the Delta.

Reaching out to the Bay, the Center also brings the Bay ashore. Pumps and pipes feed a living current of turbid water into barrels and tanks called mesocosms, little worlds where ideas about the behaviors of an intricate ecosystem can be tested on the cheap.

I walk down the steep hill from Paradise Drive toward the glittering Bay. Not far offshore, the Larkspur ferry skims by. I track down one of the newest “mesocosmonauts,” graduate student Jivan Khakee. Manhattan-born, educated on several shores, he is impressed by the Bay Area’s efforts in preserving nature. “I come from a place where it’s all concrete,” he says.

Graduate student Jivan Khakee displays a “cancrid” crab. Photo: Tessa Filipczyk

His first experiment also involves concrete. He will help test the functioning of a new style of oyster reef anchor, developed right here. Unlike the heavy structures sometimes used to encourage colonization by the native but sadly diminished Olympia oyster, the new units, a couple of feet high and more or less triangular, are light enough for two people, or one husky one, to heft. He demonstrates without a grunt, and shows me how such units interlock to form a structure that won’t shift in the Bay’s fierce currents.

Khakee wants to find out what kind of interspecies dance will form around these structures once in place. Along with the oysters themselves, they will inevitably draw the Atlantic oyster drill, an inch-long carnivorous snail that first reached the Bay in the 1800s. The drills use sulfuric acid and an abrasive organ called a radula to bore their way through to oyster-flesh. But the snails themselves are prey: for native red crabs of the Cancridae family. Khakee hopes that the new reef components will attract the crabs as well, providing a kind of Praetorian Guard for the oysters. Also bound to show up is another non-native, the omnivorous European green crab. Little submersible cameras will watch how all these critters live, and die, together.

Moving to an active tank, Khakee lets in some Bay water from a spigot, then plunges a hand into the murk to retrieve a “cancrid” crab. “Ouch!” says. “They don’t like being picked up.” Brick-red, filling the palm, it can pinch hard even through a glove. The animals aren’t bred here but are brought in by the boats; he needs a few more to get his experiment running.

Khakee is the newest recruit to the team of Katharyn Boyer, who doubles as the center’s interim executive director. When not fighting to keep the operation alive, she works to understand and restore the Bay’s eelgrass beds. Alongside revived oyster reefs and tidal marsh, these can help buffer shorelines from erosion and inundation by rising tides. The flow-through Bay water system is vital to this work. “Without it, we wouldn’t be doing our restorations,” she says.

Another member of Boyer’s group, Christian Tettelbach, is testing whether eelgrass is just eelgrass. Do plants plucked from different parts of the Bay, and propagated here at the Center, show different responses to variations in acidity, salinity, and light? If so, it may matter which strains are planted where as restoration proceeds. If not, not. A CO2 tank infuses different doses of the acidifying gas; a simple windowscreen over one tank mimics duskier water. To what extent can the grass itself help counter acidification? Answers are sought both here in the “mesocosms” and out in the field.

Unlike Khakee, Tettelbach has been at this for several years. I give it a try: Does he have any conclusions yet? None, he says, that he can share yet.

For researchers here the key habitat structure is Delta Hall, a handsomely refurbished warehouse. It houses about ten subsections, or laboratories, run by senior scientists. Boyer’s is one. Wim Kimmerer, among the perennial names in estuary science, heads another. Several belong to the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a partner agency headquartered here. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, working especially on invasive species such as the oyster drill, rents its own building nearby.

“Mesocosms” permit cost-effective investigation of intricate ecosystem behaviors. Photo: John Hart.

Though united in praise of what they have, the denizens of the center ache to see fuller use of the expansive site. For every modernized and well-maintained building like Delta Hall, there is a Navy structure that can’t be used without expensive restoration; one I walked by is visibly falling down. “You have to drive through a kind of ghost town to get to our main facilities,” Boyer acknowledges.

But if two old barracks, already getting seismic upgrades, could be outfitted as dormitories, undergraduates could spend weeks instead of hours at the site, and grad students could find housing here (both Khakee and Tettelbach commute from Oakland). If the old wharf were rebuilt, the Center would gain a new and more welcoming front door. Water taxis could bring in students from the city (many of whom lack cars) and local youth learning the restoration trade. Empty spaces could host new research partners, perhaps as incubators or “maker labs” for compatible private firms.

The Center’s hope for survival now seems to lie in just such a flowering. The present difficulties stem from a mismatch of scale: a facility of statewide importance (at least) became the ward of a single campus of an overtaxed state university system. When SFSU president Paul Romberg took charge of the former Naval land in 1977, he had to agree that the facility would have no separate budget of its own; like other school functions, it would live by state funding tied to total enrollment. Though the center itself has never lacked for recruits, the parent school’s population, even before the Covid shock, was trending downward. The Smithsonian and the Estuarine Reserve chip in in different ways, but the latter’s presence depends on a funding match that the school can ill afford.

The decision has already been made: the university will step out of its role as the center’s prime support. By next June, a committee, including Boyer, is to come up with a better plan. Could several universities join in sustaining the Tiburon campus? Could new research tenants be found? Will foundations come to the rescue? Shouldn’t the state resource agencies, with their multitude of EOS alumni, have a stake? Though it’s the last thing anyone wants, “the nuclear option”—closure—is also on the list.

Stuart Siegel, interim director of the Estuarine Research Reserve, hopes that the Center will come out of its crisis as something even grander. “Expand the place up to what it’s really capable of!” he says. “It should be the Bay Area’s focus of research and training for climate change adaptation.”

“It’s the university’s problem,” Boyer notes, “but it’s the whole scientific community’s problem. I can’t think we’ll just fall apart. Where would you find another place like this? How could you replicate it? How would you even start?”

Top photo: Estuary and Ocean Science Center is located at one of three natural deep-water anchorages in the Bay system.

About the author

John Hart is an environmental journalist and author of sixteen books and several hundred other published works. He is also the winner of the James D. Phelan Award, the Commonwealth Club Medal in Californiana, and the David R. Brower Award for Service in the Field of Conservation. For ESTUARY, he writes on groundwater, infrastructure, and California water politics and history.

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