Fisheries researchers prepare for move to new La Jolla digs


New SWFSC building features

■ Experimental aquariums, an animal necropsy lab, specimen processing lab, photogrammetry lab, genetic labs, physiology labs, oceanographic labs, specimen archives, a library, conference rooms, green roofs, office space for 275 scientists and support staff, and a two-story tank for testing new research methods.

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By Pat Sherman

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) were leery — if not teary-eyed — at the prospect of vacating the breezy, oceanfront facility their institution has occupied for five decades.

However, as SWFSC’s state- of-the-art replacement facility began to take shape across the street, staff grew keen to occupy the new locale.

The new building, located directly across La Jolla Shores Drive from SWFSC’s current, cliff-hugging complex, was designed to replicate and enhance its existing work environment.

“You can see how open and free this building is,” said SWFSC Assistant Director Roger Hewitt, standing on a walkway above the interior courtyard of the old, four- building facility, which includes a grove of Eucalyptus trees. “It’s antithetical to an uptight, closed, secure federal building. ... It’s got lots of natural lighting and lots of natural ventilation. It’s a very nice place to work and it’s conducive to these ad-hoc, spontaneous conversations.

“The challenge for the architects,” Hewitt said, “was to recreate this space across the street and still meet all the new standards for federal security” while working with the steep grade of the 3.3-acre site.

While awaiting the move, staff once working in the old buildings are occupying leased space near UC San Diego.

The move has been inevitable since El Niño winter of 1997-98, which exacerbated erosion of the 200-foot cliff on which the SWFSC facility was situated.

After the move is complete, three of the buildings will be torn down and the land reverted to UCSD ownership. Parking and native vegetation will be added to the site, and at least one coastal lookout established at the southern edge of the property, as mitigation for Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s adjacent Marine Ecosystem Sensing, Observation and Modeling laboratory (currently under construction). A ground lease on the new site was gained through a land-swap with UC San Diego, which granted NOAA the deed for the old site in the 1960s.

A fresh start

The new, five-story facility, built into La Jolla Shores Drive’s hairpin turn, is approximately 287,000 square feet, with about 90,000 square feet of interior and adjacent parking.

Its lower level is mainly comprised of labs, from a necropsy room where researchers can perform autopsies to determine why a dolphin or seal died, to about 60 experimental aquariums, where the populations of everything from sea bass to abalone can be monitored under a variety of conditions.

“It just depends on what we’ve got an interest in, and what we’ve got money to pursue,” Hewitt said.

The data can be used to determine how much fish can be harvested without depleting a population.

A first-floor specimen storage room contains samples dating back to the 1930s, including large amounts of ichthyoplankton (fish eggs and larvae), which helps with population estimates.

“What we try to do is tease out the affects of the environment versus fishing on population changes,” Hewitt said.

A two-story Ocean Technology Development Tank holding 2 million liters of water is used to test the latest ocean research methodologies, or can be used to monitor a school of fish and other marine life.

Both the experimental tanks and the two-story tank systems feature ozone and ultraviolet water treatment systems, protein fractionators and sand filters.

“The water is really well conditioned as it flows through here,” Hewitt said.

A frozen tissue storage room on the top floor is kept at minus-80 degrees. It contains all the samples used in genetic experiments.

“Some of it’s involved in legal battles, so we have to make sure that it’s backed up and secure,” Hewitt said.

“The problem out here in California is (when) somebody’s shot a sea lion ... we have to keep it in case it comes up as evidence.”

Conference rooms are named after fish species studied at SWFSC, such as sardine, krill and the Adélie penguin.

Office space is cooled by natural ventilation. Narrow building wings allow natural light and air currents to flow through both sides.

Other energy-efficiency elements include solar panels, recycled materials and rooftop landscaping to keep the building cool. NOAA is expecting to achieve LEED Gold certification on the project.

An observation platform jutting out from the top floor known as “The Bow” was added by architects as a bonus. “We picture our director up here assembling the troops,” Hewitt said, noting that staff are considering mounting a pair of high-powered sea expedition binoculars to the deck, with a coin box.

The new facility’s top level is flush with the upper portion of La Jolla Shores Drive, so that when passersby drive into the turn, the view plane is preserved, Hewitt said.

“On the backside it’s five stories down, but you don’t notice it,” he said. “Unlike the MESOM building, we went to great lengths to make sure that we didn’t (block) the view.”

The new SWFSC facility was constructed through funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Hewitt said NOAA estimates the project infused $80 million into the local economy. “The old building lasted us 50 years,” he said. “We expect this one to go twice as long.”

The La Jolla campus, one of six regional NOAA Fisheries Service facilities, is home to the majority of the Fisheries Resources Division, staff from NOAA’s National Satellite and Information Center, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and California Department of Fish and Game.

SWFSC researchers provide the government with advice on how to manage the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, as well as solutions to overfishing and options to aid the recovery of threatened or endangered species, such as the gray whale.

“We’re the science side,” Hewitt said. “Sometimes they listen to our advice, sometimes they don’t.”