sunset at Carpinteria Salt Marsh

A minute’s drive off the highway, buzz of cars still audible, a short, industrial block in Carpinteria dead-ends at a pair of train tracks across which Amtrak blazes multiple times each day. Two steps beyond, a chain link fence fronts an expanse of land mostly surrounded by offices, condos and houses.  

Walking up on this flat, predominately brown and, to the untrained eye, otherwise nondescript place, you wouldn’t be the first to say, “Huh, not much to look at.” And you won’t be the last well-meaning naïf to whom Andrew Brooks simply says, “Look closer.”

There is always more than meets the eye at the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve, which Brooks directs for the seven-site UC Santa Barbara Natural Reserve System (UCSB NRS). Like a butterfly inching out of its chrysalis, this swath of protected property reveals itself slowly, with every change in gaze bringing a new discovery.

“When you look out over the marsh, you don’t see a lot of tall, impressive trees, you don’t see any cliffs or mountains,” Brooks said. “It’s all very low, very close to the ground and most of the time it really doesn’t look like there is much happening at all. But you have to stop, be patient, take 10 minutes and look, and if you do, what you’ll see is a lot of activity in the marsh. You’ll see birds flying around and feeding in the channels, and fish swimming up and down. You can see crabs fighting with each other, little gladiator contests going on in the bottoms of the channels.

“You don’t have to be here too long — maybe 15 or 20 minutes — before you completely forget everything else exists,” Brooks added. “You get sucked in. Even though the railroad tracks are right there, the freeway is right there and there are houses all around, you pretty quickly filter that stuff out and all you see is the marsh. It’s just a really beautiful place to work.”

Andy Brooks sitting down near reserve

An oasis of nature

A biologist who did his doctoral work at UCSB — and, in fact, on the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve he now oversees — Brooks, also a research scientist with the campus’s Marine Science Institute (MSI), has been managing the marsh since 2001. He doesn’t live on site as many reserve directors do. He’d have to pitch a tent. The property sits in the middle of a city and is devoid of any permanent structures.

But this place of understated ecological grandeur is a rarity in many more ways than that. A beach runs along its southern border, but the beach itself is not part of the reserve. And who needs it?

Picture this: Students visiting the marsh listen to a lecture along the banks of the estuarine channels — home to myriad coastal species — that snake through the property. Suddenly, bam! A hungry shark springs from the water into the air, trying to catch a crab. True story.

“I’m facing away from water, they’re all looking at me, taking notes, then they just stop,” recalled Brooks, who regularly gives tours and talks at the reserve to classes from UCSB, Santa Barbara City College and several other schools. “I hear a noise, and they’re all shouting and pointing. A four-foot leopard shark had come up into the channel behind me, chased a crab up onto the bank and was half out of the water wiggling around. Then it wiggles back into the water and swims away. Sometimes nature happens.”

And what a show it is. Sharks are just the beginning. In a region where more than 90 percent of wetlands have been degraded, filled or — as this marsh was once slated to be — developed into boat harbors, the reserve supports an impressive array of species. 

All told, the estuary provides habitats for hundreds of species, many that are considered endangered or sensitive, such as salt marsh birds-beak and Belding’s savannah sparrow. More than 250 plant species, over 200 species of birds, mammals and other vertebrates, as well as over 100 types of invertebrates such as pygmy blue butterflies, fiddler crabs and the native Olympia oyster, have been recorded here. As have 35 types of fishes. Some, like the California stingray, use the channels for spawning, while others, including the California halibut, utilize the marsh as a nursery.

Brooks describes it as “an oasis of natural habitat in a larger urban landscape.”

“You have this 230-acre salt marsh surrounded by houses, schools, orchards, greenhouses, small businesses, railroad tracks and freeways,” he said. “As a result, the reserve provides critical natural habitat needed by a host of species trying to exist in an ever-changing, modern landscape dominated by ever-increasing coastal development. Taking into account the loss of over 90 percent of the coastal wetlands in southern California, remaining coastal marshes like this one act as increasingly important stepping stones used by species that routinely move up and down the west coast.”

“Being down here on the marsh by myself, just thinking about how nature works and how everything fits together, is one of the best parts of this job.”

Andrew Brooks

Reserve Director, Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve

sunset at Carpinteria Salt Marsh

An ecosystem most rare

The UCSB NRS is part of the larger UC Natural Reserve System, founded in 1965 to provide undisturbed environments for research, education and public service. With 750,000 acres of protected natural land across 39 sites, representing most of the state’s major ecosystems, it is the largest network of its kind in the world.

UCSB has seven properties in its care, the most of any UC campus. Among them are the two-site Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserve in Mammoth Lakes, Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve in Cambria, Sedgwick Reserve in Santa Barbara’s wine country, Coal Oil Point Reserve in Goleta, just adjacent the campus, and Santa Cruz Island Reserve.

The Carpinteria Salt Marsh was a relatively early addition to the NRS portfolio. First identified as a priority site in 1966, by system founder Kenneth Norris, it was finally acquired by the University of California in 1977. The marsh in its entirety measures 230 acres, 120 of which comprise the reserve. The remainder is owned by The Land Trust of Santa Barbara County, the City of Carpinteria and homeowners living along the shore. The local stakeholders work with UCSB to protect this much-studied ecosystem.

“Tidally influenced interfaces like the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve are increasingly rare,” said Patricia Holden, director of the UCSB NRS and a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “The reserve provides one of the few remaining venues in California for understanding how natural marshes alter land exports to the coastal marine environment, what intrinsic ecology is fostered in salt marshes and the evidence for changing coastal landscapes, past and present.

“Under the direction of Andrew Brooks, and with the support of our essential partners, UCSB is so fortunate to steward the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve for the remarkable research, education and outreach that happen there,” Holden added. “Given its central location and high accessibility, the CSMR provides wide geographical benefit: to school classes, to public groups and to scientists at the many universities and agencies in the region.”

Research and restoration

Zombie snails. So that’s a thing.

The parasite-induced phenomenon can frequently be seen at the Carpinteria reserve, where parasites have been the subject of groundbreaking research. UCSB-led studies on the role of parasites in salt marsh ecology, and the use of parasites as model systems to examine the spread of disease in humans, “have gained international recognition,” Brooks said.

Lest parasites get all the glory, the full catalog of research emanating from the marsh is wide-ranging: wetland ecology; vertebrate and invertebrate zoology; botany; tsunamis; carbon sinks; nutrient enrichment; sea-level rise; climate change. It’s all in there.

Longtime UCSB biologist Mark Page has conducted research in the reserve for decades. His projects have focused on, among other things, fertilizer-derived nitrogen entering the site from the watershed and the role of algae and vascular plants in the marsh food web. He also is part of an ongoing project using the marsh as a reference site for a Del Mar wetland being restored as mitigation for the nuclear generation station at San Onofre. Safe to say, he is a firm believer in the reserve’s value to research, teaching and beyond.

“About 62 percent of southern California estuarine ecosystems have disappeared over the past two centuries,” noted Page, who for 32 years has also been bringing UCSB summer biology students to the marsh.  “The university, with this reserve, is providing important protection for these endangered ecosystems as well as the opportunity for scientists to conduct research that may lead to the better understanding of their roles in preserving native biodiversity, providing foraging and nesting habitat for threatened and endangered species and nursery habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish.

“Ultimately,” Page added, “research in the reserves helps to develop information that will lead to conservation and management of these ecosystems not only in the reserves, but more generally.”

The ‘a-ha’ moment

Consider the oyster. Largely depleted across the west coast, native Olympia oysters can still be found at the Carpinteria reserve, one of the few places in California they remain. Using the marsh as a model, the California Native Oyster Restoration Project aims to incentivize oyster restoration in the region — and thereby spur the species’ recovery.

“Having access to a protected and relatively undisturbed habitat was paramount in our spatial analysis, as we were able to see the densities of oysters in an area that has not been completely modified by humans,” said Erin Winslow, co-lead for the research effort run by master’s students at UCSB’s Bren School. “This enabled us to have a baseline to compare oyster densities in more modified locations. Because the marsh is an outdoor laboratory, we were able to ask our own questions and given the option to set up small scale experiments. 

“The reserves are very special places where we can see what ecosystems in California looked like before humans altered our landscape so dramatically,” added Winslow, who will earn her degree in June. “It is inspiring, in a way, to motivate us all to strive and recover and restore our ecosystems to be like those in the UC Reserves.”

Realizations like Winslow’s are the big reward for Brooks, who characterizes teaching as the most important, and best, part of his job.

“Whether it’s third- or fourth-grade students from a local elementary school or college students, you can generally tell when something clicks in their head because they get this faraway look, then a little smile and then they look at you like, ‘Wait, I get it, I understand that now,’” he said. “That’s why this marsh is part of the NRS — to give people an opportunity to have that a-ha moment. It is incredibly fulfilling for me, not only as a reserve director but as a scientist, that I’ve somehow provided a way for people to better understand the world that they live in. And that’s a really powerful thing.”