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volunteers on shore at point pinole

Wading with the oyster catchers

on November 26, 2012

Point Pinole is perfectly silent except for the squawks of birds flying overhead and the occasional cringe-inducing crunch under foot. The low tide exposes a muddy stretch of shoreline, the rocks red and Martian-like under the setting sun.

Despite its fleeting resemblance to the Red Planet, the question here isn’t whether there’s life, but whether there could be more. There’s plenty of living things at Point Pinole – just look closely at the rocks at low tide or turn over one of the stones and find the source of that crunching sound: the Olympia oyster.

Richmond-based environmental nonprofit The Watershed Project, along with a collection of community volunteers, recently spent a week traveling to sites like these around the San Francisco Bay – Alameda, Tiburon, Berkeley and Richmond – wading through thick mud and waist-deep water all to collect bricks.

The bricks, which have been submerged since August, hopefully carry clues about where the group could direct efforts to rebuild the Olympia oyster habitat, the only oyster native to the West Coast. Gold Rush-era overharvesting and hydraulic mining caused the population to nearly disappear from the area.

Scientists and oyster fans hope that restoring the two-inch long mollusk’s habitat will jumpstart the ecosystem, stimulating eelgrass growth and the eventual return of salmon to the Bay. The Watershed Project’s Living Shoreline Initiative will launch its own restoration project at Point Pinole next summer when volunteers will deploy 100 artificial oyster reefs.

But building oyster habitat requires building a community around the native oyster. After all, everyone and everything is connected through the watershed, even the oyster, said Christopher Lim, The Watershed Project’s oyster restoration project manager.

“We’re all connected to oysters,” Lim said. “The daily decisions we make affect our environment whether positively or negatively. All of it makes a difference.”

Volunteers count oysters in a square

Ricardo Iglesias, right, takes a break from counting the inhabitants of a sample area at Point Pinole. Diana Dunn, education coordinator for The Watershed Project, left, was showing volunteers that day how to conduct the study for the National Estuarine Research Reserve. (Photo by: Sean Greene)

Their tasks are sometimes dirty, sometimes tedious, but always fun. At Ferry Point in Richmond, volunteers donned either mud boots or rubber waders and charged out into the Bay in search of those gray bricks, which were stuck in the sand using rebar and plastic zip ties.  For months during the oysters’ spawning season, the bricks have been accumulating sea lettuce, barnacles and, most importantly, “spat” – young oysters.

Later volunteers would count all the spat, which range in size from one inch to the size of a grain of rice, and send the data to UC Davis.

It’s treacherous work. The unforgiving mud at Point Pinole can form a bit of vacuum around an unsuspecting citizen scientist’s foot, slowly dragging him under the San Pablo Bay like quicksand. At Ferry Point, three brick-collectors, including Lim, wore waders, clumsy attire that raises the risk of losing balance or tripping in waist-deep bay water.

On a recent late afternoon at Ferry Point, a ship employed a noisy crane to dredge the Bay of sand and silt. Despite the noise, it was the spectacle of combing the water for these bricks – some completely submerged, some marked only by an exposed segment of rebar camouflaged with a green sea lettuce flag – that attracted onlookers.

A man on a stand-up paddleboard drifted toward the beach at Ferry Point, calling to the group.

“Are you conducting a biological survey?”

We’re looking for native oysters, Lim responded.

“I know there aren’t many of them left,” he said. “I know there’s a smaller one but thought those are from the Northwest. … They were popular in the Gold Rush,” the man said.

Lim continued scanning the shoreline.

“They’re all over these rocks,” he said.

It’s not that Olympia oysters have disappeared completely; they actually still live in each of the seven sites The Watershed Project is monitoring. The studies aim to keep tabs on the health of oyster populations to see where restoration efforts would be most effective. At Point Pinole, they found “some really good oysters,” Lim said, so the nonprofit and its partners chose the site for its project.

While Lim fielded questions from a television news crew, Ashlee Johnson, The Watershed Project’s Americorps intern, and volunteer Monica Lemos kept searching for the last brick. More curious passerby came by to learn that there are, in fact, oysters in the Bay.

The sun had completely set by the time Lim and Johnson finally left Ferry Point around 6 p.m. They headed a few miles north, straight to Point Molate.

Guided by LED headlamps, they walked down a gentle slope to the flat muddy shoreline. Lim marveled at the low tide, leaving the oyster bricks high and dry above more of that man-eating mud. Wouldn’t the changing tides like this kill the oysters? Lim called the bivalves an “intertidal species,” meaning they can live for days in open air, just as long as it doesn’t get too hot.

Days later, on a rainy Saturday, 30 community volunteers crammed into a room in The Watershed Project’s office as Lim explained the monitoring study and the day’s task: count spat on brick. Scientists used to count the spat, but Lim said volunteers could do it instead.

oyster under a magnifying glass

“Sometimes Mother Nature has a different plan,” said Christopher Lim, and The Watershed Project volunteers lose bricks that they placed in the Bay to collect “spat,” or young oysters,. This brick, seen under a magnifying glass, was found months too late and the oysters have grown much larger. (Photo by: Sean Greene)

The project is collaboration between The Watershed Project, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF, pronounced “Niff Wiff” by oyster insiders), PG&E and UC Davis. The data collected from the bricks will be sent back to the university and feed a five-year-old ongoing study. Scientists want to get a baseline to find out where the oysters are and where they’re not, Lim said.

One volunteer expressed concern for the young oysters on the bricks. Will the bricks go back into the water?

“These oysters are – um – I got waivers from them and they’re giving themselves to science,” Lim said as the group chuckled.

Soon the office fell into the lull of a low murmur as citizen scientists pored over bricks, scouring for signs of spat. The delicate process employs toothbrushes and rags to wipe away the sticky mud and magnifying glasses to reveal the tiny creatures.

Oxiris Elizondo

Oxiris Elizondo, a senior at Richmond High School and a member of the Aqua Team club, measures young oysters attached to a brick that had been in the Bay for several months. Volunteers were counting oysters for The Watershed Project, which assists U.C. Davis researchers with an ongoing oyster monitoring study. (Photo by: Sean Greene)

Outside beneath a canopy to shield from the rain, Oxiris Elizondo, a member of the Aqua Team, an environmental club at Richmond High School, pointed to a tiny speck embedded in the brick as her classmate marked down its width on a data sheet.

“It’s something I don’t usually think about,” said Elizondo, a senior. “I get to see the oysters and learn things about them.”

The Aqua Team has 15 student interns at Richmond High School and teaches them about environmental stewardship, said Chiara Swartout, the restoration director for the group’s parent organization, EarthTeam. Her students work on restoring native plants and removing invasive ones, take monthly trips to different Bay Area watersheds, and bike down Wildcat Creek Trail, Swartout said. On Saturday, the nine who made it to the “oyster counting party” reveled in the chance to work with animals.

“I had fun just counting them,” said Daniel Rosillo, a junior. “I know that our environment hasn’t been treated the best. With the youth more involved, with time we can reduce the impact of pollution. We go around picking up trash and counting the oysters … because they help clean the water … That’s just our main goal, to clean up our Bay.”

The Watershed Project’s partnerships and strong push to involve community members didn’t go unnoticed Saturday. NFWF and PG&E presented The Watershed Project with a giant ceremonial $40,000 check to fund their restoration work. Claire Thorp, an assistant director of NFWF’s southwestern partnership office, said it’s critical to empower the community, especially youth, to preserve, restore and protect the environment.

Each of the 30 folks who turned up to count spat on Saturday said they’d volunteer again, according to comment cards filled out at the end of the day.

These oysters are inexplicably attractive.

“Each and every time I’m always overwhelmed by the people that choose to come out and be citizen scientists,” said Diana Dunn, education coordinator for The Watershed Project. “For oysters to not be one of those charismatic creatures, people are interested in them … it’s not like a panda or anything like that.”

Dunn said many people don’t know there are oysters in the bay. People who like to eat them know they’re not from around here.

“People are a little bit surprised or shocked to hear there are oysters in the San Francisco Bay and that gets them to come out a bit,” Dunn said.

Christopher Lim stands at Point Pinole

Christopher Lim of The Watershed Project stands in the mud at Point Pinole, helping volunteers collect tiles with young oysters attached to them. The tiles will be sent to the National Estuarine Research Reserve. (Photo by: Sean Greene)

Lim agreed with the food connection. Bay Area people are into food, he said.

“Everyone knows what an oyster is, but they don’t know the specifics and how cool the oyster is,” he said.

Lim, also part-time oyster farmer, has decided to name the oyster community the “oyster catchers.” His oyster farmer friend inspired the conversation-starting name, Lim said. The farmer tells people he’s an oyster catcher, which prompts the question, “How do you catch oysters?”

Well, it’s a dirty, slippery, sticky process but people seem to love it.

“This is still a grassroots thing. We’re really trying to inspire environmental stewards,” Lim said. “We have to get them out there. We have to get them touching things. We have to get them to be part of the story, not just telling it.”

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