Baywatcher

Nobody knows the waters around San Francisco (and beyond) better than the director of NRDC's Science Center

A version of this story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.

From Christina Swanson's office, you can see a slice of San Francisco Bay. It's a body of water, a habitat, and a managed system she understands as well as anyone in the world. She knows all about the bay's water quality, ecological indicators, contaminants, habitat-restoration efforts, and fish—especially the fish. She can tell you whether you can eat fish caught in the bay, how many Delta smelt live within those waters, how fast they swim, and what gait they tend to use (fish can trot, canter, or gallop, much like horses).

Dr. Christina Swanson, Ph.D.
Photo by Rebecca Greenfield

Swanson, the director of NRDC's Science Center, was previously executive director and chief scientist of the Bay Institute, where she used her expertise as a marine biologist and fisheries scientist to protect the health of the bay and its species. Now, from her office 21 floors above the streets of San Francisco, her view extends well beyond those waters. "This is a chance for me to broaden my horizons beyond the bay and its watershed, and beyond my particular scientific background, to work on national issues," she says.

Swanson grew up in Portola Valley, California, and she often dropped by a fish store in the next town over. "I would go in there at six or eight o'clock, and the man would spend half an hour with me picking out the exact right fish." Her fascination extended through college, a PhD in biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and postdoctoral work studying how fish function in relation to their environment. The PhD research brought her to Hawaii and the Philippines, where she studied the milkfish. "The milkfish is totally cool," Swanson says. "It can grow to be this big"—she gestures wide in true fisherman storytelling style. "It can live in freshwater and super salty waters, and not many species can do that."

As director of the center, Swanson is determined to help scientists communicate their findings, among themselves and with advocates and policymakers, to have more impact on the protection and preservation of natural systems. Created in 2006, the center serves as NRDC's scientific backbone, working across programs to encourage new research and support the organization's 60-plus staff scientists. Swanson oversees three postdoctoral fellows who work with NRDC advocates on very targeted issues.

MoreISO/iStock

"Everything we do at NRDC is based on science," says Tom Roush, a trustee who has supported the center since its inception. "Our litigation, advocacy, the way we address problems, the solutions we suggest—all of it is validated by scientific fact." He says that Swanson, with her experience at the nexus of science and public policy, is helping the institution flourish.

"We live in a frustrating time when science is ignored, dismissed, denied, and twisted," Swanson says. But she recognizes that science is a process, and part of that process is communication. "We have to find new ways to communicate, beyond technical reports, expert testimony, and the press, to help people understand the story of science and the environment."

It's like her musings on San Francisco Bay. "If you tell people whether they can swim or fish in the bay, it personalizes it," she says. In fact, you can swim safely in the bay, but not after a big storm—the sewage treatment systems can get overwhelmed and spill raw sewage into the waters. As for fish, you can generally eat the little ones, but those big striped bass can carry mercury. "That," says Swanson, her golden fish-skeleton earrings shimmering when she shakes her head, "is when people start to care about the rest of the system."

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