San Francisco State University’s Romberg Tiburon Center in Marin County will begin training graduate marine-biology students, thanks to a $2.9 million federal grant. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)

SFSU’s Marin County marine center moves on without salmon institute

San Francisco State University’s marine-biology center in Marin County is moving forward without the salmon institute that called it home for years, earning a $2.9 million grant from the federal government to start a new program.

The grant will allow the Romberg Tiburon Center to branch out from its usual focus on students who are pursuing a doctorate degree. Instead, graduate students in the program will receive the training needed to find careers at state agencies or businesses that are impacted by climate change.

“We’re really excited to be able to train them more broadly,” said RTC Director Karina Nielsen, who added that students will research sea-level rise, changes in water quality and environmental equity issues.

While unrelated to the salmon institute for kids— Nielsen said the new program “is just the regular work that we do everyday” — the National Science Foundation awarded RTC the grant on Sept. 15, just 10 days after the deadline for the Tiburon Salmon Institute to vacate the property.

The move from RTC has devastated Brooke Halsey, a former prosecutor who created the salmon institute in 2006 to let children learn about salmon and the ailing industry. Salmon pens had been at RTC for more than four decades under the San Francisco Tyee Club.

“We haven’t been able to find a home for the project,” Halsey said. “It’s been heartbreaking.”

Without a facility to operate, Halsey is hoping to keep the program alive with a custom trailer that holds two large fish tanks, a truck and a boat. The program worked with public schools throughout Marin County and held an annual event in Tiburon where children released salmon raised at the center into the San Francisco Bay.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has been an advocate for the institute through formal negotiations with SFSU over whether the institute could remain at the site. The dispute lasted for about a year — until local media stopped paying attention, he said.

“Unfortunately, this year, there’s been an entire group of young people who missed the opportunity to take part in a real meaningful salmon program that’s been going on for decades,” said Huffman.

Both Huffman and Halsey chalked up the debacle to the change in management that happened when Nielsen became RTC director in 2014.

However, Nielsen said the main issue was that the institute was operating at RTC without a lease. SFSU traces the dispute back to 2008, when it first pushed for a license agreement with the institute, which did not pay rent.

“That was the crux of the problem,” said Nielsen. “Imagine if you have a business, and you have a building, and someone decides to do a pop-up coffee cart.”

SFSU has also raised safety concerns over children working on the seawall without life vests and the condition of storage warehouse licensed to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration but used by the salmon insitute.

The institute still has equipment in the warehouse that he is trying to sell, according to Halsey.

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