Pandemic Forces Closures, Job Cuts, Shifted Science for Bay Area Conservation Groups

September 3, 2020

Since 2004, Point Blue Conservation Science and scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have sent a research boat off the coast of Northern California about three times a year to track the health of the marine ecosystem. The researchers monitor bird and mammal life, water temperatures, and krill and plankton abundance, among other indicators of ocean health. This year, however, there will be a noticeable blip in the data; the last ACCESS (Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies) “cruise” was in September 2019. Just as the weather was improving for 2020’s first trip, the Covid-19 pandemic reached California’s shores, and researchers had to scrap the trips for fear of unwittingly contributing to the virus’s spread.

“There’s going to be this break in our long term series of these different data sets that we’ve been collecting, which is unfortunate,” said Meredith Elliott, the ACCESS Program Coordinator at Point Blue. “A lot of our data we collect goes to informing ocean management decisions, so for example knowing how many whales are out there and where they’re hanging out is important to protecting them from things like ship strikes and entanglements with fishing gear.”

All around Northern California, environmental and conservation groups have had to reassess their priorities over the last six months, deciding what field work is immediately safe and essential, and reexamining budgets in the face of sudden financial pressures. The California Native Plant Society was in the midst of a crucial year of field work gearing up for the United Nations Biodiversity Convention, to be hosted by China in October when everything shut down. As part of an international effort, by the time of the meeting the plan was to have 80 percent of rare plants in California “seed banked” in case of extinction. “So you can kind of imagine how that went,” said CNPS Director of Plant Science Andrea Williams. “The only thing that we can do really is go out next year, which is particularly unfortunate for science because in plant monitoring in particular, every year is a different year, just based on the seasonality of rainfall and the temperature and all of those sorts of things.” 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which relies on visitor sales for 60 percent of its revenue, has cut more than one third of its workforce, and says it is facing a $45 million cashflow loss this year. The California Academy of Sciences projected a $12 million loss in revenue and in June announced layoffs, furloughs, salary cuts and hour reductions to 75 percent of its employees. Aquariums and zoos don’t have the luxury of fully shutting down operations; staff need to care for and feed the animals whether there are visitors or not, which in the case of the Monterey Bay Aquarium means nourishing some 80,000 plants and animals. “That’s a big, big deal for an aquarium that has never had this happen before. We’re a huge anchor for the city of Monterey and the peninsula and we’re part of a loss for the community and for its economic coffers,” said Margaret Spring, the aquarium’s Chief Conservation and Science Officer. Among the Aquarium’s layoffs were members of the Seafood Watch team, which raises public awareness of sustainable fishing practices.

Rather than focusing its efforts on environmentally minded California legislative measures, the aquarium has shifted gears to lobbying for federal relief nationwide for zoos and aquariums. “We’ve pivoted from conservation action to relief and survival,” Spring said. As part of a coalition of zoos and aquariums, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is hoping Congress will include rescue measures for them in the next economic stimulus package, when it reconvenes in September.

The Presidio Trust, which manages more than 1,100 acres of San Francisco’s Presidio, has also announced layoffs. In a statement by email, Presidio Trust Media Relations Specialist Lisa Petrie said the organization was forced to cut one-fifth of its staff, with layoffs affecting the volunteer, visitor engagement, and gardening teams. The Trust is working on a plan for the National Parks Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to spearhead volunteer, education and interpretive services in the park in the future. Despite the cuts, Petrie said, ecological restoration activities have continued as planned, with expanded marshland and a trail at Quartermaster Reach on track to open by the end of the year, experiments with native oyster restoration ongoing, and 14 new acres of parkland over the Doyle Drive tunnels approximately a year away from opening.

The Presidio Trust plans to complete work on its Doyle Drive Tunnel Tops project, despite layoffs affecting one-fifth of its staff. (Rendering by James Corner Field Operations, courtesy Presidio Trust)

Even for organizations that have not had to weather immediate financial strain, the pandemic has put long-term priorities into doubt. The Greenbelt Alliance works in part on climate resilience and adaptation, supporting local governments as they prepare for climate impacts. In January, Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a five year $12.5 billion climate-related budget, including a $4.8 billion climate resilience bond measure to be voted on in November. Because of the pandemic, however, the majority of that funding has been scrapped, and the bond measure is in doubt.

“We’ve really been saying ‘We need to invest now because it’s only going to be more costly in the future as wildfires happen and as floods happen’,” said Greenbelt Executive Director Amanda Brown-Stevens. “We really saw early in the year, like in the governor’s budget in January, a really clear focus on climate adaptation. And the devastation of the state budget has dealt a huge blow to what we saw as really crucial increases in funding that we’d been advocating for. We’re thinking about how, in the circumstances we’re in, to not lose that momentum, because we’re in such a crucial time where we understand the [climate] risks but we’re not yet feeling the biggest effects.”

Despite the uncertainty, groups are continuing conservation work wherever possible. Point Blue has kept its field stations open in Bolinas and on the Farallon Islands, with some adjustments to the number of researchers involved, and how often they are rotated off the islands. It has also continued its spotted owl monitoring program in places where Pacific Gas & Electric and other agencies are maintaining equipment, to ensure they’re in compliance with environmental regulations.

Still, with the spread of the virus far from under control, planning field work remains a challenge, with no end in sight. In late July, Point Blue and NOAA debated whether or not to send out one of the ACCESS boats this week to continue monitoring. It would have involved just four researchers, with only two staying aboard the boat, and a “pared down” monitoring effort. On August 17, however, the cruise was put on hold for at least another month because of increasing case counts in Marin and Sonoma counties, where the ship would dock.

Even for organizations that have not experienced layoffs, the long-term financial picture is tenuous. Both public funding and the priorities for foundations are likely to shift to address urgent economic needs. Brown-Stevens, with Greenbelt Alliance, encouraged donors and other agencies to consider the big picture when thinking about giving. “I am hopeful that in the Bay Area where we do have a lot of forward thinking people and a lot of wealth and giving capacity, that we can continue to invest and be leaders in how we’re thinking about the intersection between COVID, and how investing in our natural environment reduces our risks to so many things,” she said. “Stewardship has a value. Let’s make sure we’re not losing the forest for the trees.”

About the Author

James Reddick is a writer, editor and audio journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was recently the Features Editor at The Phnom Penh Post, where he managed the paper’s long-form and culture coverage, and edited national news content. As a reporter in Cambodia, he wrote about the environment, human rights, politics, culture and food.