TIBURON, Calif. (KTVU) - A student-based conservation program that has raised and released approximately one million salmon to the sea may dry up as early as July first.
It's a heated lease dispute, entangling educators, children, and politicians.
Thursday afternoon, KTVU found Tiburon children painting protest signs. The signs, shaped like fish, are usually red and line the streets alerting the community when it's time to set thousands of hatchery salmon free.
But the kids were painting the signs black, with the slogan "SAVE TSI", refashioning them as protest signs.
Volunteers as young as 9-years-old spoke up in support of the program
"They have these little baby salmon, and they're adorable," Mia Ginsburg told KTVU, "and when you dump them from the bucket, you know you're helping the universe because you're helping life."
Every fall, after months of nurturing, 8,000 to 10,000 six-inch salmon are released from floating pens on the property of the Romberg Center for Environmental Studies.
But now, those pens sit on the pavement, dilapidated and unused. The salmon that were in them were released last week, prematurely, because the Tiburon Salmon Institute is being evicted by the Romberg Center for Environmental Studies. .
"We've been trying to get a lease here for ten years," TSI Director Brooke Halsey told KTVU, "and they've given us changing reasons on why we must leave, from permits to safety concerns to bad science, But as we address each of those concerns, the reasons switch."
Critics suspect the motive has something to do with the value of the bay front property. They point to a commercial real estate ad, since taken down, that offers the 36 acre site for sale. The Romberg Center is part of San Francisco State University.
"It is not for sale and has never been for sale, there was an exploration of leasing opportunities," insisted Karina Nielson, Romberg Center Director. "When a new director comes on, I have to look at all the lease agreements and all the tenants and make sure things are the way they're supposed to be."
Nielson admits the educational program has value, and is well-established in the community.
But she showed KTVU a photo she took at the sea wall that shows students handling nets, none of them wearing life jackets near the water.
"The unimaginable happens every day," Nielson observed,
When asked if she was aware of any student ever being injured in the history of the program?
"I have no idea," replied Nielson, "I started in 2014."
Rep. Jared Huffman, contacted in Washington, DC, told KTVU that the safety issue seems like a ruse.
"I've had my own children on that dock doing that program," Huffman declared, "and there are always many adults supervising."
The Congressman has sent off an angry letter to the President of SFSU, decrying what he describes as arrogance, animosity, and a lack of truthfulness on the part of Director Nielson.
Rep. Huffman says he has received no response yet, but hopes the eviction can be reversed.
"This is a dumb decision, creating a lot of bad blood toward the University, needlessly," he insisted by phone, "so let's see if we can't sit down and talk, and work this out."
In borrowed warehouse space which soon must be emptied of tanks and filters, pumps and chillers, KTVU found 14 year old volunteer Caleb McDaniels of Tiburon, who has been volunteering twice a week, helping raise salmon, for several years.
"They are such an important part of the ecosystem," said McDaniels. "And the fact that they're disappearing so much, is really scary, and I want to help."
A petition lobbying to save the TSI has been set up on Change.org.