Research ecologist Paul McElhaney walks up stairs at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center building in Mukilteo on Feb. 16.

Research ecologist Paul McElhaney walks up stairs at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center building in Mukilteo on Feb. 16.

Fisheries center scientists hope for new building in Mukilteo

MUKILTEO — The drab wooden building — the last functioning relic from an abandoned Air Force fuel depot — has been home to a federal research center on ocean and fishery issues for 40 years.

During that time, there have been few improvements in the military-style design and structure of the two-story building, formerly an Air Force barracks.

There’s a noticeable downward slope to some of its wooden floors. Dropped pencils can roll down hallways like an ace bowler throwing a strike.

The combination of strong winds and tides can drive waves from the nearby waterfront over concrete barriers, splashing onto and under the building.

Its weakened foundation has been temporarily buttressed, a fix that’s only expected to last about five years.

“Despite the current status of the building, we’re supposed to do state-of-the-art research,” said Paul McElhany, a research ecologist who often works at the station, part of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Little wonder that a proposal to include $4.6 million in an upcoming federal budget for initial planning for a new building has scientists beaming. If money is approved, plans call for a $33 million, 26,000-square-foot building that could open in 2020.

“We’re excited about it,” said John Stein, director of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, based in Seattle, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “I think it’s a real opportunity for the region to give us improved facilities to do research.”

Despite the building’s troubles, there’s a reason marine research has continued in Mukilteo over the decades, and why scientists want to build a new facility there.

“There’s deep water fairly close to shore, and there’s a lot of water mixing in that area,” explained Stewart Toshach, director of operations management for the science center.

Water from a depth of about 60 feet in Puget Sound can be pumped into the laboratory to do experiments with marine animals, he said.

Major building improvements couldn’t be made over the years because it belonged to the Air Force until 2014. “We can’t improve properties that we don’t own,” Toshack said.

Scientists are researching topics, such as the effects of the ocean’s increasing acidity on sea life. They also are working to restore what was once a thriving supply of native pinto abalone in the nearby San Juan Islands. The abalone were driven to the edge of extinction by recreational over-harvesting.

Inside one room on the building’s first floor, McElhany is surrounded by a series of white tubs filled with seawater. Inside are thousands of tiny crab hatchlings. The larvae are about the size of the end of a pencil. The experiments are monitoring the effect of carbon dioxide, simulating both current and predicted higher future levels. Scientists have found higher carbon dioxide levels slow the crabs’ growth and cause more of them to die.

As Earth’s carbon dioxide levels increase, about a quarter of it is absorbed by the ocean.

“It makes it more acidic,” McElhany said. “Increasing acidity is particularly difficult for things with shells.”

At high enough levels, it can cause their shells to dissolve. This could have big implications for western Washington, where in addition to crabs, oysters and muscles have thrived.

In a nearby room, Caitlin O’Brien, who works for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, is monitoring the growth of juvenile pinto abalone, which are about a half-inch in size. As they grow, they’re switched to an outside tank. Their shells, about the size of a quarter, morph from green-tinted to a deep pink color. They will taken to the San Juan Islands and deposited in water about 30 feet deep. The goal is to get a healthy enough population for the abalone to thrive, she said.

Stein said he hopes the proposed new marine station could be constructed in ways to allow visitors to learn more about the ocean and Puget Sound. There’s the possibility of once-a-month lectures, he said, and a place where kids and families could come to learn more about marine science.

Discussions are underway with the city of Mukilteo about a land swap that would allow the new building to be constructed on nearby waterfront property. The city would have the land on the current building’s site for a park.

The transformation of the former tank farm property comes as the city has updated its plans for the waterfront area, including construction of a nearly mile-long promenade.

Toshach said construction of a new marine station would be a major development for the community, transforming the tank farm property with its empty, overgrown lots.

“We’re hopeful this abandoned tank farm, which was an eyesore, will be a very valuable community asset and can be used by the people of Mukilteo, Everett and visitors to the state,” Thosach said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com

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