International School of Monterey Students Win Water Award!


Dr. Doug Smith listens as CSUMB and Stanford students discuss the merits of the winning project. (photo C.Reeb)

On Saturday, March 16th, young scientists from around Monterey County gathered at California State University Monterey Bay for the annual Science and Engineering Fair.  Gathered with them were science professionals from surrounding communities who served as judges for 260 student projects.  Included among the judges were scientists from Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and CSUMB’s Watershed Institute who were there once again to find this year’s winners of the Water For Our Future award.


Trophy (Winners, Monterey, CA)

With guidance from Drs. Doug Smith (CSUMB) and Carol Reeb (Stanford), our team of graduate and undergraduate students assessed the merits of sixteen water-related projects and selected a short list of the top four contenders.   Our team’s expertise included marine science, aquatic ecology, geology, hydrology, and conservation biology.   After thoughtful discussion and debate, the judges unanimously decided upon the winners.


This year’s Water For Our Future award goes to Suheib Ibrahim and Owen Nakazono from the International School of Monterey.  Their project titled, “Got Water,” began with a simple but essential purpose, to find the “most efficient and cheapest way to purify water.” Noting that commercially available water filters in pitcher systems from PUR or Brita can range in price from $5 to $10 each, these scientists looked to all-natural, biologically “organic” plant byproducts (banana peels, coconut husks, or fresh cilantro) to replace the more expensive activated charcoal filters sold in stores.


Methods and Results. (photo C.Reeb)

Three homemade filters were made from inverted plastic beverage bottles (bottom cut off).  They were filled halfway with layers of cotton balls, pebbles, and sand.  Atop this was added layer of  “organic” plant material from banana peels, cilantro, or coconut husks.

Two water sources were sampled and tested for conductivity (a measure total dissolved salts) and color (a measure of suspended solids).   These tests are good indicators for water pollution. Acidity was also measured.  The water sources used for testing were distilled water (which has no contaminates and served as a control) and urban pond water collected near Dennis the Menace Park (Lake El Estero).  The pond receives urban runoff via three inflowing streams.  It also is a year-round habitat for a number of waterfowl.  In other words, it has a lot of dissolved salts and suspended solids that give it a murky appearance.

Water samples from each source were poured into the PUR and homemade water filters.  The filtrate passing through each was collected and sent to a local lab for conductivity, acidity, and color testing.


Filtration performance differences  (color) among homemade and commercial water filters. (photo C.Reeb)

The results showed all three organic filters had varying levels of water purification performance depending on what organic material they contained.  The PUR filter worked best at removing color and salts from the pond water.  However, the next best filter was the one made of cilantro.  The filter made of coconut husks had the worst filtration performance.

Application to Real World Concerns

These students impressed the judges with their worldview of water shortages facing not only California, but Mexico and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa as well.  What especially caught the attention of our marine scientists and hydrologists was the connection this project revealed between wetlands and water purification in the natural world.

Although Lake El Estero is a freshwater pond today, a few hundred years earlier it was part of a much larger brackish water wetland.  This wetland filtered stream and river flows before they poured into the sea.  This filtration helped keep the Monterey Bay clean and healthy for fish and other marine life that the native Ohlone people relied upon for food.   For example, during heavy storms rainwater can erode soil and send muddy water rushing to the sea where it pollutes nearshore waters, enhances harmful algal blooms, and may create fish kills.  Wetlands, however, stand between rivers and sea.  Plants in and around wetlands, both living and dead, become “organic” filters that remove suspended and dissolved solids during storms and inhibit pollutants from entering the Bay.  In this way, the Bay remained healthy for thousands of years.  Nowadays, those wetlands are gone.  In their place are municipal storm sewers that attempt to do the same thing, but at a much higher price.

So aside from showing us that organic plants have potential for one day replacing activated charcoal filters with less expensive “organic” components, our award winners also recreated the concept of wetlands in a bottle. As one of us noted, “That project was pretty amazing.”

Congratulations to Suheib and Owen of Monterey’s International School on their impressive application of water science to help solve a water problem in the future!


York School Students Win 2018 Water For Our Future Award!

Congratulations to Seth Madden and Avery Danielsen from York School for their impressive environmental engineering projects aimed at improving water quality and supply for our future!

Collecting Fog (Seth Madden)


Seth Madden of York School stands before his winning poster showing how fog capture designs from nature can be engineered to collect more water.

There are many places around the world where animals and plants survive in climates much drier than our own here on the Central Coast of California. Take for instance the Namib Desert of southern Africa, which receives only 19 milliliters (or ¾ of an inch) of rain each year. For comparison, Monterey averages 500 milliliters (19.5 inches) annually. Fortunately, the Namib Desert is located adjacent to an ocean.   And just like Monterey,  this desert gets a lot of fog.

Seth gained an interest in Namib Desert animals and plants.  He reasoned that species found there must have perfected the art of fog collection over millions of years of adaptive evolution in order to survive the harsh conditions. He imagined that if we could replicate efficient fog capturing designs found in desert species, we might be able to help coastal communities make use of fog to supplement their water supply.

Seth began by learning how water-attracting bumps on the backs of desert beetles (Genus: Stenocara) condensed moisture that then flowed along waxy channels to their mouths.  ( Click here for a photo of the Namib Desert beetle in action).  He read about how long grooves etched in blades of desert dune grasses (Genus: Stipagrostis) guided water droplets to plant roots. He realized desert cacti used a similar, but slightly different method to do the same. Based on his readings, Seth constructed three fog-collecting mesh models that mimicked beetles, grasses, and cacti.  He compared water collecting efficiencies of his models to one using a man-made mesh found in conventional fog nets.

Seth replicated his models three times and measured average water volumes each collected over thirty days. At the end of the study he found that mesh patterns mimicking nature’s desert designs recovered more water, in most cases, than a conventional fog net. In fact, cacti and beetle models seemed to work best. Our judges were thrilled to listen to this young scientist explain in detail how biomimicry could be used to engineer better fog capture devices. Congratulations to Seth for garnering insights from nature that could one day help supplement California’s water supply!

EDITOR’S NOTE: California’s coastal redwood trees rely extensively on fog. Long, flattened leaves catch atmospheric moistures as it rolls in from the sea so it can drip onto roots during the long, dry summer. The oldest redwood in Monterey County grows in the Santa Lucia Mountains. At 150 feet tall, it is thought to be at least 800 years old, which means it has survived a lot of droughts, thanks to its ability to collect fog.  Check out an article in the Monterey Co. Weekly HERE.

Protecting Our Ponds (Avery Danielson)


Avery Danielsen’s award trophy is pictured next to her winning poster. Unfortunately, she could be at the awards ceremony.

Leaks and spills from cars, damaged pipelines, or storage tanks allow toxic motor oil to find its way into roadside ponds and lakes, especially after storms. Over time, these toxins can accumulate to harmful levels for aquatic life. Avery began her presentation by telling us how urban aquatic habitats, especially those near roadways, are at great risk of oil contamination.  Because traditional methods of oil cleanup (dredging or draining) often cause even more harm to aquatic life, she sought ways to mitigate oil contamination without stressing organisms further.  Her idea was to harness the power of plants.

Avery chose two plants for this purpose; the Blue Dart Rush (Juncus inflexus) and common duckweed (Lemna minor). Both species tolerate immersion in water and each can be purchased at garden shops.   Avery planted duckweed and rush in replicate “ponds” made from glass tanks. Control samples (without plants) were included.   An equal volume of used motor oil was added to each tank and the depth of the oil layer was measured over time to see how much disappeared.  By the end of her experiment, Avery found that “ponds” with blue rush had less oil than duckweed or controls.  Although the oil eventually killed all the plants, she noted that the rush plants could tolerate oil much longer than duckweed. She concluded that Blue Dart rush was a better plant to clean up oil than duckweed.

Because the Blue Dart Rush originated in Europe, not California, the judges wondered if native wetland plants might be useful for oil cleanup too. Certainly, California is full of natural oil fields, some of which have been heavily exploited for decades. We entertained possibilities that some of our own plant species might be of service for roadside pond clean up.  This project embraced the emerging field of phytoremediation that is gaining ground as a less impactful way to restore aquatic ecosystems.   Congratulations to Avery for her forward-thinking vision to help keep California’s surface waters clean for our future!

Graduate Student Judges:


Graduate students Bethany Schulze and Arev Markarian from California State University, Monterey Bay and Crystal Ng from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station helped judge the award.

Young scientists and judges alike found ways to shine at this year’s Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair despite Saturday’s stormy clouds and periods of heavy rain. With nearly 300 projects presented by more than 400 students competing for category and special awards, selecting this year’s Water For Our Future winners took us on an exciting and scholarly journey to a final destination – our unanimous decision on this year’s winners.  Thanks team!

Bridging a Generational Gap Between Pacific Tides

By Amanda Smith and Yesenia Ortiz (edited by DocOnMontereyBay)

The Great Tide Pool at Point Pinos in Pacific Grove at sunset. Photo: A. Smith

WE are standing at the edge of the Great Tide Pool at sunset on a cool and crisp autumn day. Gusts of wind rush between us leaving hair in our eyes and the breathtaking view momentarily obscured. We watch with amusement as others struggle with hair in their faces while photographing this incredible place. But the Great Tide Pool is worth it, even in the wind. The amount of diverse biological beauty hidden among the rocks between Pacific tides is almost unfathomable. A local resident from another time once noticed this too. Ed Ricketts stood near here decades ago witnessing many of the same things we see today – although thanks to sea level rise, he may have stood a little further offshore than we can.

Ed Ricketts first came to Pacific Grove in 1927.  He made a living collecting marine specimens along the coast then selling them to universities around the country. In so doing, he gained a deep understanding of the plants and animals that lived in tide pools and other intertidal habitats. The Great Tide Pool was one of his favorites. Ed Ricketts was not a college professor. Yet in 1939 he wrote one of the best-known scientific texts on intertidal ecology titled, Between Pacific Tides. Although Ricketts notes in the Preface that his book was intended for “the person who has had little or no biological training,” it is still used today as a valuable snapshot in time of species abundance and diversity in marine organisms inhabiting the coast at a time when no one knew much at all about climate change.

Bat Star2

Bat Star. Photo: A. Smith

Over the last century, sea level has risen by nearly a foot. As water slowly, unperceptively crept inland, visitors to the Great Tide Pool may not have noticed their own retreat over the years by a small step or two. However, in the next century the ocean is expected to rise by as much as four feet. Many of us living today will bear witness to dramatic changes in our lifetime that most people living in the time of Ed Ricketts might have called “unbelievable” or “impossible.”

Already, global atmospheric temperature has risen by 1.4° Fahrenheit (NASA, 2017). However, by 2100 temperatures are expected to rise between 2.5° to 10° F (Click Here for facts about climate change from NASA).  Sea surface temperature will rise too, but more slowly. Nonetheless, we already know that even small increases in water temperature can impact marine species. Some will be unable to cope.


FIGURE 1. Daily shoreline temperature at Hopkins Marine Station, 1924 – 2016. Data from HMS Marine Life Observatory.

Not far from the Great Tide Pool is Hopkins Marine Station where ocean research has been underway since 1898. In 1919, the Station began monitoring shoreline water temperature. Using their data, we plotted daily sea surface temperature (data HERE)  on a graph in Figure 1. The graph reveals a clear upward trend.

In 1931, Hopkins scientists laid out a permeant transect extending 108 yards from the beach through tide pools to the low tide mark offshore. Along that line they recorded the distribution and abundance of forty-five unique species. Sixty years later, researchers returned to repeat that study and the two data sets were compared (Barry et al. 1995).  The results revealed a sobering truth. After six decades, scientists realized that species originating in warmer waters from the south had increased in abundance around the marine station while cooler-adapted species from the north had declined. The authors concluded that this shift of southern species moving northward “falls in line with predictions of change associated with global warming.”

Evidence for climate change has been around since the early part of the last century. For instance, renowned marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson’s noted in her book, The Sea Around Us, (1951) that, “The frigid top of the world is very clearly warming up.”  Climate change is not a myth or surprise. However, not everyone agrees about its cause.


Striped Shore Crab. Photo: A. Smith

In 2015, a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults reported that 72%  believed there is “solid evidence” for climate change. Of those, only 42% believed humans were responsible. However, when sorted by age more Millennials (ages 18-34) and Generation X (ages 35-50) believed human activities played a major role (47%) than Baby Boomers (41%). Interestingly, only 28% of people over the age of 65 believed humans played any role at all (PEW Research Center 2012; data available HERE).

Why are young and old generations divided over the cause of climate change? One answer may lie in our early education. We, as “Millennials,” remember being educated about environmental issues at a relative early age. Even today, we see school children (Generation Z) getting involved with local organizations that actively teach about greenhouse gas pollution and the actions one can take to reduce it.

We went home and discussed the generational gap with older members of our family. While everyone was very aware of climate warming, we were told they were not taught about it in school.  One remarked, “We never gave the ocean much thought back then.”  If generational differences during early education is a key to what divides our views, opinions, and disbeliefs later in life on climate change, perhaps there is something we could do now to try and change that.


Green Sunburst Anemone (Anthopleura sola). Photo: A. Smith

Consider this quote from Ed Ricketts’ book, Between Pacific Tides.

“There are good things to see in the tide pools and there are exciting and interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing.”

Our solution is this: share your knowledge, no matter how big or small, of a favorite outdoor place, habitat, or environment with others. If you live near Pacific Grove, we recommend a trip to the Great Tide Pool. Pick a favorite scene. Photograph what you see. Return to this place in the coming years with new friends and family members. Take more pictures. You could even start a family tradition! In time, we expect that you will be able to look back at your photos and see the effects of climate change for yourself. Give pictures to your children so they, like us, can one day stand at the water’s edge and imagine a time when things were different — the way they used to be back in 2017.

Barry JP, Baxter CH, Sagarin RD, Gilman SE. 1995. Climate-related long-term faunal changes in a California rocky intertidal community. Science 267(5198):672-675.
Carson R. 1951. The Sea Around Us. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 288 p.
Hopkins Marine Station Marine Life Observatory.  2017. Measurement of Sea Surface temperatures outside of cottage 1919-2016.  Pacific Grove, CA. [accessed Nov 22, 2017:]
NASA. 2017. Global Climate Change: Effects. (accessed November 27, 2017).  Website link HERE.
PEW Research Center, October 15, 2012. More Say There Is Solid Evidence of Global Warming. Pew Research Center, U.S. Politics and Policy.  Online report available HERE.
PEW Research Center, July 1, 2015. Americans, Politics and Science Issues. Online report available HERE.

Storytelling Science, v. 1.0


As night falls after a long day of hiking, storytelling around a warm fire brings people together.

We humans have a long history of telling stories. Be it folklore or fable, allegory or saga, storytelling in all its varied forms helps transfer history, culture, and invaluable life lessons from one generation to the next. Before the advent of books, libraries, or data storage in digital “clouds,” stories were the encyclopedia of facts we left to our young. Captivating narratives helped us share experiences and new ideas. Humorous details with the right touch of empathy eased the pain of death and loss. Stories warned of hazards, instilled precautions, and triggered actions that saved lives. In our ever-changing world on an always-changing planet prone to environmental fluctuations between varying extremes, our ancestors paid attention to shifts in their environment.  They catalogued information generation after generation and packaged them into stories. Our penchant for storytelling thus became a vital survival skill for humankind.

Today, we stand on the edge of another epoch of change, in a climate of political division, at a time when science is being defunded, discredited, or denied.  How can scientists share information with the public if their research is met with blind skepticism?  One approach that is gaining ground in recent years it to go back to the tried and true methods of storytelling (see Martinez-Conde and Macknik, 2017).

In the coming days, I will post two stories written by students from California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) who are taking a class titled, “Marine Science in the Community.”  The goal of our class is for students to learn ways to engage with the public over matters of marine science.  To that end, the stories featured on this blog will reflect interests and concerns about climate change and future water shortages around Monterey Bay. I encourage readers to engage our young scientists with their thoughts and comments.  Let’s see if stories can help bridge a gap between scientists and the general public so everyone can understand each other a little better.

Thanks for reading DocOnMontereyBay,

Carol Reeb

Reference:  Martinez-Conde, S. and S.L. Macknik. 2017. Finding the plot in science storytelling in hopes of enhancing science communication.   Proc. Natl. Acad. 114(31): 8127-8129.  Click to read the free online text HERE.

What Kind Of A Noise Annoys An Oyster?

By Carol Reeb,  23 July 2014

Signs posted around town in Point Reyes Station, CA.  Photo by C. Reeb, June 2014.

Signs posted around Point Reyes, CA. Photo by C. Reeb, June 2014.

In June, I was in Point Reyes National Seashore for a backpacking trip.  Renowned for its unique geology and diverse plant, bird, and marine life, this coastal wilderness is also flanked by a handful of small, peaceful towns built upon a history of ranching.  The day before heading out, I wandered through one of these towns, Point Reyes Station.  As I did, I couldn’t help but notice all the signs.  From homes, businesses, telephone poles, even the trunks of trees they proclaimed, “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.”  Out of curiosity, I began asking locals about the signs.  I learned that the National Park Service was planning to close an oyster farm that had been operating for 82 years on land inside the Park.

“Next thing you know,” an innkeeper warned, “they’ll be shutting down the ranches too.”  By “ranches,” he meant the dozen or so”historic” cattle and dairy farms occupying the northern section of Point Reyes National Seashore.

I stopped by the town’s visitor center.  A woman opened a map to show me where the farm was located – right in the middle of the National Park.  It occupied about 1000 acres of the estuary, which is nearly half of Drakes Estero.  Closing the farm and its cannery, she told me, would put people out of work.

“I remember in the beginning, everyone thought the park was a good idea because it stopped developers from coming in and taking over.”  It sounded like now she was having second thoughts.

I parked my car alongside the road to take a picture of a sign.  A passerby asked if I was lost.  I asked her about the sign.

“Oh.  Well, I haven’t decided what I think yet,” she admitted, “but I can see both sides.”  She told me how the controversy had divided the town. Some people were no longer on speaking terms.

I grew up on the east coast about an hour’s drive from the Chesapeake Bay where oysters (Crassostera virginica) are big business.  In grad school I  did genetic research on these oysters, which are native to the region.  Suddenly, I was curious.  What was all this noise on oysters really all about?  I decided to take a trip to the farm and find out.


Schon's Lagoon, part of Drakes Estero.

Schon’s Lagoon, part of Drakes Estero.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Driving north on Sir Frances Drake Road, I came upon a sign for the oyster farm and followed a gravel road uphill.  The road was rippled with tractor-tread ridges that rattled the frame of my car loudly.  In the rearview mirror I realized my tires were kicking up quite a bit of dust, which formed a long wake trailing behind.  I slowed down.   Framed in the passenger side window was picturesque Schon’s lagoon, one of five fingers of Drake’s Estero.  Winding around the final turn, the road opened into a parking lot filled with cars.  Rundown buildings with chipped white paint and tattered tarpaper roofs rimmed the lot.  Although it was a sunny weekend in mid June, the wind was brisk.  I grabbed a jacket from the car and walked toward an overhead banner with the words, “Welcome to Drakes Bay Oyster Company.”

The Oyster Shack.  $12 for 6 on the half-shell.  Photo: C. Reeb June 2014.

The Oyster Shack. $12 for 6 on the half-shell. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Groups of people were huddled together around picnic tables.  Kids waited with paper plates  while adults pried apart oysters with dull knives and small hammers.  An American flag posted to the side of one of the buildings flapped in the breeze.  A short line of patrons extended out the door.  This was the “Oyster Shack.”  Inside, was a chalkboard menu with prices: $2 per oyster; $12 for six on the half shell, $24 for a bag of two-dozen to be shucked yourself, tools provided.

Informational sign about oyster farming in Drakes Estero. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

I remembered an old saying from home: never eat oysters in a month without an “r”.  As it was June, this was one of those bad months when long days and warm temperatures can create the conditions for harmful algal blooms that are linked to cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning.  Reassured by an informational sign promoting the Estero as a “protected and undeveloped watershed” that provides the farm with “California’s finest shellfish water quality,” I made a decision.  Ignoring the warnings of tradition, I ordered six on the half-shell.  Tilting a shell to my mouth, I slurped the soft mollusk in.  First thought: salty, not so sweet.  These oysters were fairly small.  As such, they lacked much of the milky glycogen that would give them the sweetness I was expecting.

The worker who prepared my plate left me to hand my money over to a woman who was busy talking on the phone.  I easily overheard part of her conversation.

“Yes, we’re still open.  Seven days a week.  We’ve appealed the case.  They may shut us down anyway.  Thanks for the call.  We appreciate the support.”

When the conversation ended, she came to the counter.  As I handed her my money, I asked why the farm had to be closed.  In her answer, she identified herself as the farm manager.  Later, I realized I was talking to the owner’s sister.

“Scientists and the government are using bad science to put us out of business,” she said.  “Can you believe it?”  She went on, speaking passionately for the farm while expressing outrage at the situation the farm was in.

“Just wait,” she warned.  “One day the government will tell you what you can and cannot eat.”  She rattled off a list of injustices levied against the farm beginning with the National Park Service’s threat to close them down and rob the public of a sustainable seafood business.  She complained that the Coastal Commission unfairly denied them permits for site development, including permission to repair leaky roofs on many of the buildings.

“What’s going to happen when it rains?” she asked.

“Good thing we’re in a drought,” I joked, unsure what more I should say.

Her message was loud and clear to me: bad science, radical environmentalists, and a small number of out-of-touch government officials were conspiring with the National Park Service to force a hard-working family out of business.  As a result, jobs will be lost, the local economy will suffer, and a sustainable seafood product will be taken off the market.  She added that even U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein was trying to help save the farm.

“Listen, do you hear that?” she asked.

A motor-driven conveyor belt brings oysters from flat boat in the water to workers onshore.

A motor-driven conveyor belt brings oysters from flat boats in the water to cannery workers onshore.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

“Hear what?”  It took me a moment before I realized she was referring to the low hum of a diesel-powered engine.  It drove a conveyor belt bringing oysters from flat boats in the water to a group of workers onshore.

“That’s just it.  Bad science says that motor is bothering seal pups and disturbing people in homes two miles away.  But you can hardly hear it.” I had to agree, it was quiet enough.  However, sounds come in a variety of frequencies creating a “soundscape” that humans cannot always detect.  Meanwhile, these noises can sometimes disturb marine mammals.

“I have to tell you, I’m a marine biologist.” I say.  “I did research on oysters in grad school.”

“Oh.”  She paused.  “Then you should know bad science when you see it, right?” I should, of course.  But at the time, I had not read the environmental reviews or scientific reports about the farm to form an opinion.  I had come here with curiosity, driven by an interest in oyster biology and maybe a little hungry too.  But as she continued with accusations of “bad science”, I found myself wanting more details.  So I questioned statements found on the farm’s informational sign, which described practices as “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable.”  Unlike most oyster operations on the east coast, this one did not use artificial oyster beds.  Instead, they used “hanging culture” methods that do not disturb species living on the bottom of the Estero.  This was good.  But, I was bothered by one particular fact.

“You know,” I began, “Pacific oysters are an introduced species.  Farming them in a National Park just seems, well, not ideal.”  I tried to sound as diplomatic as possible.  “Why don’t you farm native oysters instead?”

I was referring to Olympia oysters. Oyster farming in California began with Olympia oysters.  By the mid 1800’s however, over-exploitation and increased urbanization had degraded the oyster’s habitat causing populations to dramatically decline.  About this time, shellfish species from Asia and the east coast were introduced to keep the valuable fishery alive.  Today, efforts are underway to restore the native species.

“Yes, our oysters are not native,” she admitted.  “But there’s no way they reproduce and survive outside the farm.  Here, let me show you.”  With that, I followed her into the oyster-rearing lab behind the Oyster Shack.  She told me the farm was the only one in the area capable of producing their own larval “seed.”  That piqued my interest.  She showed me a jar of finely ground oyster shells that looked like sand.  About two weeks after hatching, free-swimming oyster larvae metamorphose and attach or “seed” onto these shells and become sedentary for the rest of their lives.  Read About Pacific Oysters and Culture Methods HERE.

“There’s no way our larvae can survive in the Estero,” she assured me.  Water temperatures there were too cold.  Proper metamorphosis could only occur within their facility.  As she spoke, I wondered in silence about the potential this species had to evolve.  In a future of climate warming, would Pacific oysters make a biological leap and one day colonize Drakes Estero?  What would that look like, ecologically?

Sorting year-old oysters by size in the rearing facility.

Sorting year-old oysters by size in the rearing facility.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

She introduced me to the farm’s marine biologist who was sorting year-old oysters through various-sized screens then placing them in mesh bags.  They keep the shell sizes uniform in the bags before placing them out in the Estero.  Suspended above the bottom, these filter-feeding bivalves feast on plankton brought in on the tides.  Four or five years later, they are harvested.

“Except right now we are harvesting everything we can,” she said, “because we don’t know how long we will last.”  I realized this probably explained the lack of sweetness in the small oysters I purchased earlier.  We headed back outside and were approached by a jovial guy sporting a campaign hat.

“Here’s something to bring you luck,” he said handing the manager a four-leaf clover pressed between layers of plastic wrap.

“Oh,” she smiled with gratitude.  “I’m going to put this up in the office!”

I listened while they compared notes on the latest residents and businesses who had joined the farm’s cause.  I shrugged helplessly when they expressed disgust over big government’s bullying of a small family farm.  All of us wondered out loud on whether the U.S. Supreme Court would hear their case in two weeks.  I thought they would, given the growing controversy between those making a living off natural resources on public lands and the conflicts  arising over financial costs of complying with laws meant to protect vulnerable species teetering on the edge of extinction.  I, too, was starting to see the difficult choices that divided both sides.  But my mind kept returning to one simple fact: Point Reyes National Seashore and Drakes Estero were set aside by Congress for public use, not commercial businesses or farming.   It was a wilderness area, which is what brought me here for backpacking in the first place.

To that, the farm manager said this, “They call this a wilderness area.”  She took a deep breath.  “Do you know 2 to 3 million people drive their cars and motorcycles into Point Reyes each year.  Kayakers harass the seals.  Hikers disturb the birds.  Can you really call this place a wilderness anymore?”

I had to admit, she had a point.  On my way to the farm I was nearly run off the road by a speeding Audi passing slower traffic, despite a double yellow line.  Certainly, there are people in the public who don’t get it.

“Sorry to interrupt!”  A young woman ran up to us, shivering.   She was in shorts.  The hood of her recently purchased Drakes Bay Oyster Company sweatshirt was tied tightly under her chin.

“Can you tell me if there is a bar, even a dive, where we can toast my friend’s birthday?  We love the oysters, but it’s just too cold here.”

“Oh, you’ve got to go to the Western Saloon in town,” the manager suggested.  “Do you know where that is?”  The tourist shook her head.  “Here, let me talk to your driver.”

With that, my conversation was over. I left Point Reyes and drove back along Sir Frances Drake Road.  En route, I saw another sign.  It read:

“Let’s Protect Both Elk and Cow.  Let’s Build Elk Fences Now.”

Tule elk are endemic to California and once roamed the Central Valley and coastal areas in large herds.  By the mid 1800’s, these herds had been displaced by ranching and decimated by hunting to the point where they were considered extinct until a small group was “discovered” in 1874.  Today, the only free-ranging herd left is the one fenced off in a reserve on the northern tip of Point Reyes.  While at the visitor center, I was told the population of elk had recently grown.  Some were now escaping the reserve to bully the cows for grazing pastures.  It was becoming a problem.

Tule elk once roamed California in large herds.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Tule elk once roamed California in large herds. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.


When I got home, I “googled” the oyster farm.  As with most controversial cases that make their way to the Supreme Court, there was a wealth of information online.  In particular, I discovered one key fact the farm manager failed to mention. In 1972, the oyster farm’s previous owner, Charlie Johnson, sold his land to the U.S. government for $79,200.  In return, the National Park Service gave him a one time, 40-year lease to continue farming oysters until 2012.  In 2004, he sold his oyster business to the Lunny family, who finalized the deal knowing the farm’s lease would soon end.  This made me stop and think.  Why would someone buy a business knowing it would be shut down within 8 years?

Arch rock, Pt. Reyes National Seashore.  Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Arch rock, Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

When Mr. Johnson sold his land to the government and Congress subsequently listed Drakes Estero as a “potential” wilderness area, the oyster farm’s fate was sealed.  Despite a 2009 provision from Senator Feinstein enabling the Interior Secretary to grant a 10-year permit renewal, federal legislators never gave the oyster farm what it really needed; a permanent lease.  Instead, they granted the Interior Secretary discretion to transition Drakes Estero from a “potential” wilderness into a full-fledged wilderness area once the farm’s lease expired.  Read the Interior Secretary’s decision HERE.

What about the accusations of bad science?  I looked that up too.  In order for the Interior Secretary to make his decision, the National Park Service was required by law (i.e. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970), to produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  However, the Park Service was not required to design experiments to test the farm’s environmental impacts.  To do this would have been costly and time consuming.  Rather, the report was required to use existing data.  Sadly, after 82 years of oyster farming in Drakes Estero, little scientific data had been collected for a rigorous assessment of farm practices.  When conflict erupted, implications that the oyster farm was anything other than “environmentally friendly”  were met with strong opposition.

Young harbor seal.  Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Young harbor seal. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

The National Academy of Sciences was called in to review the Park Services’ report.  Read The Academy’s Review HERE.  They found no evidence of “bad science,” but did find high levels of uncertainty surrounding some conclusions. One of those conclusions involved noise generated by motors and other disturbances common to farm operations.  The Academy noted that Park Service scientists had not fully characterized all components of the Drakes Estero “soundscape,”, including traffic noise.  This does not mean the farm manager was justified in her casual dismissal of the diesel motor nor does it mean the motor is harmful to a nearby harbor seal rookery.  It simply means we do not have enough data to know for sure.  To change that, more research must be done.   Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s perspective HERE.

Interestingly, restating the question of noise in the case where all motors are turned off (i.e. the farm is shut down) was found to have a low level of  uncertainty by the Academy.  In other words, scientists could be certain there were benefits to seals if farm noise was eliminated.  Perhaps somewhere between these two extremes is a scientifically acceptable scenario for oyster farms and seals.  Unfortunately, no one made an effort to find it.

In the end, science played little role in the Secretary’s decision.  Citing Congress’s direction to “steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status,” he  invoked discretion not to renew the farm’s lease (Scroll to page 7 and read the Secretary’s Conclusion HERE).  The Lunny family sued, claiming Senator Feinstein’s 2009 provision (Section 124) only allowed the Secretary to approve a lease extension, not deny it outright.  A federal court disagreed.  Since then, the farm has been allowed to stay open until all appeals were exhausted.


On Monday, June 30th, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the farm’s case (read the KQED article HERE).  Hence, Drakes Bay Oyster Company will close and Drakes Estero will transition back to the wild.  The Lunny family plans more appeals.  Meanwhile, in nearby Tomales Bay, outside the boundaries of Point Reyes National Seashore and adjacent to the Tule elk Reserve, commercial oyster farming thrives.  I suspect those oysters never noticed the noise.

A Short List of Provocative Articles On The Wilderness Act:

Dairy operation in Point Reyes National Seashore.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Dairy operation in Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

1.)  Of Mollusks and Men:  The Wilderness Act and Drakes Bay Oyster Company.  The Berkeley Blog.  J.F. Hein.  1 January 2013.

2.)  The Fall of the Wild?  Not Really.  The Wilderness Act Turns 50.  The Slate.  B. Minteer  20 July 2014.

Check Out My New Talk on Seawater Desalination

Desal Talk, 2 Mar 2011Desalination of the Sea Around Us, v 2.0

This is a talk on seawater desalination I gave in Pacific Grove, CA on March 2nd, 2011.  It is an updated version of an earlier talk and includes a short section on two new desal technologies that may be coming in the future.  This talk does not include narration.  YOU MUST DOWNLOAD THE pdf ONTO YOUR COMPUTER THEN click on text bubbles in the upper left corner of each slide TO read about each slide.

Using Wastewater as a Resource

Turning wastewater into reusable water using reverse osmosis to further purify it is an idea quickly growing around the world. In some parts of California, namely Carmel and Orange County, it is already a reality. Wastewater is 99.9% water, yet we dispose of this valuable resource down drains, into rivers, and out to sea. Wastewater contains useful chemicals that can may also be recycled in the future.

The link below contains a video from Stanford professor, Craig Criddle describing how we can benefit from making our water a renewable natural resource.

Using Wastewater as a Resource:

Check Out My Talk on “Desalination of the Sea Around Us”

Currently, the audio has been lost for this presentation.  A new presentation is underway.

This is a talk on seawater desalination I gave in Seaside California on October 19th, 2010. It is divided in two parts. Part I contains information on seawater desalination and how the process can impact the marine environment. Part II provides specific examples of how brine discharged from these plants can affect species, especially eggs and developing young. It ends with an illustration of how water recycling could be a better long-term solution to our looming water crisis on the Monterey Peninsula and in the State of California.