Moss Landing’s development diversity makes it an economic survivor.

Fresh Off the Boat: Moss Landing's artsy Haute Enchilada restaurant, left, features organic and local ingredients, including fish offloaded at Moss Landing Harbor. Right, a worker for Bay Fresh Seafood harvests an albacore tuna.

Ray Retez pedals down Moss Landing Road, cruising at the easy pace of someone who knows where he’s going but is in no hurry about it. He parks his bicycle, strolls into The Haute Enchilada’s flower-splashed patio, and approaches the table where I’m having lunch with Linda McIntyre. 

“Will you enter into a contract with me?” he asks us. “A 50-50 partnership.”

“Yep,” McIntyre says quickly. 

He turns expectantly to me. I hesitate – this sounds like the kind of set-up that could get a journalist in trouble. But McIntyre nods encouragingly behind his back. 

“OK… ” I say uncertainly.

He hands us each a Lotto card, then walks away. Minutes later he returns with two kitschy pairs of plastic sunglasses. The ones he gives me are purple, heart-shaped, and tiny enough to fit an 8-year-old. 

“It’s always sunny in Moss Landing,” he quips before wandering off again.

“Oh, Ray,” McIntyre laughs. Then, to me: “He always does that.”

As we stand up to leave, she leans into her walker, thick red hair spilling over her right shoulder, and shifts her weight onto her one remaining leg.

These are two of the most powerful people in Moss Landing.

~ ~ ~

The 2010 Census counted barely 200 residents of this unincorporated, 0.6-square-mile community off Highway 1, midway between Santa Cruz and Monterey. Locals describe three clusters where Moss Landing’s 100 households are concentrated: by the liquor store on Potrero Road, on Struve Road north of Elkhorn Slough and, for the “live-aboards” who call their boats home, on the docks of the harbor.

Still, Moss Landing enjoys a decent bustle. The number of people who work and study at its two big science outfits, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, exceeds the town’s population by 100. About 120 more work in the commercial park under 180-foot smokestacks on the east side of Highway 1. Factor in the dozen Moss Landing Harbor District employees, the commercial fishermen and recreational boaters docked at the harbor’s 610 slips, and the staff of the area’s restaurants, antique shops, ecotours, historic inn and KOA campground, and you get a village magnitudes larger than its population. 

“It’s probably one of the most booming communities in the area,” says Monterey County Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who represents Moss Landing within his District 2. “During the recession, while the [Monterey] Peninsula was working to keep hotels open, they never suffered that downward trend.”

In ecology, it’s well established that biologically diverse communities are more adaptable to environmental changes. That principle can be applied to Moss Landing’s economy, too. As the area’s stakeholders work on a long-term development blueprint known as the Moss Landing Community Master Plan, they’re betting on diversity as a survival strategy. That means unconventional alliances between fishermen and academics, restaurants and art galleries, heavy industry and green tech.

It’s come a long way from its origins.

~ ~ ~

The network of tidelands at the mouth of the Salinas River was once simply called Moss, after the Texan ship captain who helped establish the area’s first wharf in the mid-1800s. He built it, and they came: whalers, sardine fishermen and cargo boats carrying goods to gold-rushing San Francisco.

In the 1940s, the feds established the Moss Landing Harbor District to dredge a channel and build piers. But the fledgling district sunk immediately into debt as the whaling and canning industries folded, according to the district’s website. Recovery meant thinking outside of the ocean for revenue, and the 1950 construction of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Moss Landing Power Plant offered just that.

A few years later, a young Lou Calcagno and his wife, Carol, found inspiration in a full moon rising over Elkhorn Slough and christened their Dolan Road dairy farm “Moon Glow.” Calcagno, who in 70-odd years has left Moss Landing only for college, represents one of a handful of long-time local agricultural families. Most of the fields of Brussels sprouts, artichokes and other greens flanking Moss Landing, he says, bear the farm names Capurro and Rodoni.

But in the second half of the last century, it was fishing that most defined the community. Local attorney Marc Del Piero, who represented the area as a three-term county supervisor in the ’80s and early ’90s, says Moss Landing Harbor at the time was dominated by fish processing plants, mariculture and boat facilities. Residents and businesses suffered water contamination from a faulty septic system until he helped land federal grants to install sanitary sewers.

The North County Local Coastal Plan, adopted in 1985, recognized the power of Moss Landing Harbor’s natural assets: rivers and tides flowing together in an estuary rich with otters and shorebirds; and under the water’s surface, the Monterey Submarine Canyon, a mile-deep chasm of biological mystery that inspires marine conservationists like the Grand Canyon did Ed Abbey. That focus helped lay the groundwork for the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve, assist the 1992 designation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and attract two world-class marine research facilities.

California State Universities’ Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, established in 1966, constructed its main building on what locals call “the island,” a three-quarter-mile-long, half-mile-wide sand spit across the Sandholdt Bridge. 

On Oct. 17, 1989, as MLML researchers were finishing their work day, they felt the ground shaking. Fittingly, the earth split right through the middle of the geology lab, and the building’s foundation slid 3 feet toward the ocean. Water shot out of cracks in the courtyard; “mud volcanoes and sand boils up to 1 meter high erupted on an adjacent volleyball court,” according to the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network’s account of the Loma Prieta earthquake. 

As the island’s surface liquefied, sewer lines burst and the entire area sank almost a half meter. The marine lab was demolished and rebuilt on a hill down Moss Landing Road, a process that took about a decade. By the time it reopened, it had a new science-focused neighbor.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which develops robotics and other automated tech for studying the deep ocean, was headquartered in Pacific Grove at its founding in 1987. But in the mid-’90s MBARI moved to Sandholdt Road, giving science a permanent seat next to fishing at the center of Moss Landing’s economy.

~ ~ ~

Marine researchers and fishermen found common ground in their need for a hearty lunch, an opportunity that was not lost on Ray Retez or his daughter, Kim Solano. Retez owns The Whole Enchilada, a 35-year-old Mexican seafood restaurant at the intersection of Highway 1 and Moss Landing Road, while Solano runs the 14-year-old Haute Enchilada a block away.

Solano relocated her restaurant to a neighboring lot in 2007 in an effort to revitalize Moss Landing Road west of the Sandholdt turnoff, where she and her business partner own 6.5 acres of commercial property – almost all of the area’s visitor-serving real estate.

“Moss Landing was doing a divebomb,” she says. “We had to reinvent who we were in this changing economy.”

The artistic accents in Solano’s restaurant are clues to a grander vision capitalizing on the community’s quirk: the antique shops full of historic detritus, the creative re-mixing of old street signs and salvaged boat parts. 

“We have this undiscovered little jewel,” Solano says. “You can pull off the highway and be transported into this little world.”

Solano has transformed two of her properties near the Haute into art galleries. (Her husband Luis, is a sculptor and painter as well as the chef at The Whole Enchilada.) She’s also thinking of partnering with a developer on a mixed-use project on the south side of the street, with retail below and housing above.

She gestures to the customers in cycling gear at the neighboring table. Over the years, she says, she’s seen her customer base shift dramatically. About half were once from the fishing industry; now that’s closer to 10 percent, while growing ranks of researchers and ecotourists fill her tables. She sees that as a good sign on an increasingly resource-constrained planet – and motivation to source mostly organic produce, natural meats and fresh local seafood sanctioned by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list.

“A lot of people don’t want to face that music,” she says. “We can only grow so much, but that growth can be sustainable. Research, education and ecotourism is the direction we have to go.” 

Melanie Gideon, owner of Moss Landing’s historic Captain’s Inn and a past president of the Moss Landing Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t view the changes as so dramatic. Gideon was born and raised in the community and studied marine biology at MLML; her husband Yohn, who owns Elkhorn Slough Safari, is on the Harbor District board.

Today’s Moss Landing feels similar to the place Gideon knew as a kid. “It’s still small, it’s still not greatly developed, we still have wonderful beaches without too many people on them,” she says. “We’ve gone through minor evolutions over time; now we have mostly art galleries instead of antiques. But there are still a lot of shops.”

Jim Harvey, however, takes particular note of the local fishing industry’s diminished role, a trend he attributes to both overfishing and heightened regulation. Harvey joined MLML as a grad student in the ’70s and hasn’t strayed far since. Now an international expert in marine vertebrates and interim director of MLML, he sees the community as a more diverse blend of research, fishing and tourism.

“Moss Landing is still one of the most active fishing ports in California, but you ask a fisherman, and they’ll tell you it’s a research-dominated port,” he says. “The feeling of the place has changed.”

You wouldn’t know it by the numbers. The total harvest off-loaded at Moss Landing Harbor has grown from about 69,400 short tons, sold off the boats for almost $27.4 million in the 1970s, to more than 293,000 tons at an ex-vessel value of $67.6 million from 2001-2010, according to the California Department of Fish & Game. The most notable growth has been in sardines, which were virtually absent in the ’70s and ’80s but comprised more than 55 percent of the harvest in the last decade. 

The other big difference: No more Moss Landing fishermen own their docks. Three fishing operations use the harbor district’s “K-dock,” McIntyre says. The other two docks have been sold to MBARI and MLML, which lease them back to Bay Fresh and Del Mar Seafood, respectively. In her view, that’s akin to selling the family farm. 

“They’re not owned outright,” she says. “It’s close to ending with the current generation.”

~ ~ ~

The lumpy brown carpet of bellowing, salmon-thieving sea lions was not a part of the Moss Landing Harbor District’s plan for the North Harbor. But nature has a way of throwing curveballs at even the most well-conceived projects.

Four years ago, the $4 million North Harbor Improvement Project put a four-lane boat launch ramp, 5 acres of parking, a boat-wash station, a 900-foot wharf and 110-foot dock on harbor district’s property north of the island. But it’s the sea lions – given immunity by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act – that claim ownership of that dock, and mess with the sport fishermen who camp on the North Harbor during salmon season. Harvey’s research suggests sea lions snatch more than 40 percent of hooked salmon before they’re even reeled onboard.

Luckily, one of the Central Coast’s biggest sea otter rafts compensate by inhabiting the kelp forest in the North Harbor waterfront. The Harbor District is looking to take advantage of that photogenic asset with a new restaurant overlooking the Elkhorn Slough estuary. The district board recently awarded a contract to design the restaurant’s shell on the site of the former Harbor Inn, by the Sea Harvest Restaurant off Highway 1. 

That’s just one of the development ambitions outlined in the Moss Landing Community Master Plan, a part of the larger North County Land Use Plan update that maps proposed projects for the Moss Landing area. “The focus is going to be commercial-industrial, maintaining the ambiance that’s already there,” says county planner Liz Gonzales.

The plan is still in its draft stages, but Gonzales says it will include proposed expansions to the harbor district, MBARI and MLML, the Moss Landing Commercial Park and Gregg Drilling, an environmental and geotech testing company on the harbor.

The commercial park next to the power plant on Dolan Road currently houses green-cement maker Calera, seawater desalination enterprise Desal America and government ag laboratories targeting the invasive light brown apple moth. Developer Nader Agha says he wants to bring more marine and ag tech and light manufacturing to the property. He also plans to develop 5 acres on the west side of the highway into a restaurant, 80-unit hotel, boardwalk and commercial buildings. 

“We are 100 percent committed to green, sustainable operation,” he says. 

That philosophy is also in play at Gregg Drilling, which plans a new LEED-platinum-certified building at the Woodward Marine site on the island. “That facility is where we will be basing our robotic seabed investigation tools,” says Chuck Drake, company director of offshore operations. “The reason that we’re there is because of MBARI, Moss Landing Marine Labs and other folks.”

Much of MBARI’s expedition staging happens on the Moss Landing docks, where the institute owns several key properties. Among them is the building leased by Phil’s Fish Market – world famous for its cioppino and, judging by the typical line at the counter, probably Moss Landing’s most popular eatery.

MBARI’s three-phase General Development Plan envisions two new research facilities totaling more than 100,000 square feet, a new dock house, pier updates to accommodate MBARI’s research vessel, and replacement of the Phil’s building with a new research facility. Phil’s lease is set to expire in 2015. 

Restaurant owner Phil DiGirolamo is rallying against the move, and he’s got powerful allies. “There’s gotta be a spot for Phil,” Calcagno says. “Phil is very important to Moss Landing all the way around. He keeps the economy healthy.” The supervisor says if the fish market must move, he hopes it can relocate to another suitable space on the harbor.

But cioppino fans needn’t panic just yet; MBARI’s expansion is only in its early planning stages. “All of our development plans are at the moment strictly tied to the [Community Master Plan] environmental impact report,” MBARI CEO and President Chris Scholin says. 

The expansion plans also depend on a steady cash flow for the institute, which operates on about $40 million a year, mostly from an annual Packard Foundation grant and some state and federal funds. “We’ve shrunk a little in the wake of the economic downturn,” Scholin says. “Many people assume we have vast resources to do whatever we want, but that’s not the case. I have no funding to carry out any of the construction work that’s shown.”

Another of Moss Landing’s major development players is MLML, which serves seven California State University campuses. Although the labs have moved off the island, they still have a strong presence on the docks, where three of their research vessels are moored. 

A tension often exists between U.S. fishermen and the marine scientists they blame for ever-stricter government regulations. But Joe Cappuccio, the owner of Watsonville-based Del Mar Seafoods, says his relationship with MLML has been nothing but positive. “They want to co-exist with the commercial fishing industry,” he says. 

Cal State bought Del Mar’s offloading facility at Moss Landing Harbor and is now renting it back to Cappuccio, with plans to build a new offloading facility for his local harvest of mostly sardines and squid. MLML researchers are even working to establish a fresh-food market for sardines, a long-term model they envision as beneficial to both fishermen and fish.

Also in the Master Plan, MLML is proposing new housing and a sustainable ocean science conference center on its property near the North County Unified School District offices. (As is, Harvey says, there’s no student housing in Moss Landing.)

Those plans, however, are mostly a wish list. Harvey expects the Cal State system to cut MLML’s $2 million budget by one-third this year. 

“We’re talking millions of dollars that we don’t have,” he says.

~ ~ ~

In September 2009, as Linda McIntyre and her husband Mike rode their Harleys south on Highway 101 near San Jose, a spare tire came loose from a northbound pickup and slammed into the front of Linda’s bike. 

She tumbled off and rolled 50 feet. By the time she landed, most of her left leg had been severed. Driving behind her was a medical doctor from Salinas who used a rope from his truck as a tourniquet, most likely saving her life. In the Regional Medical Center of San Jose, doctors put her into an induced coma and amputated her leg below the thigh.

McIntyre, now 62, took a hard line against self-pity. Instead, she recommitted to her Christian faith – “God wants me to share my experience and give hope to other people” – and returned to her job as Moss Landing harbormaster and general manager just four months after the accident.

McIntyre is exactly the sort of broadly résuméd official who’s come to typify Moss Landing leadership. An attorney who once ran a business-law practice in Carmel, she’s also seen her share of politics as a Marina city councilwoman in the early ’90s and an aide to former State Sen. Bruce McPherson. She’s also San Juan Bautista’s elected city clerk. 

After 12 years as harbormaster, she says, her “tight-fisted” management has tipped the district’s balance sheet from six figures in the red to more than $2 million in reserves. For example, when a tsunami hit last March after Japan’s 9.0 earthquake, the subtle damage to the harbor was discovered too late to claim state funding. But McIntyre hustled for disaster-relief funding and expects close to $2.1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for dredging, piling replacement and shoreline erosion repair.

With the nationwide recession hitting both science and fishing industries, the seas ahead are choppy for Moss Landing. The community’s future may depend on leadership creative enough to cross the ideological barriers that often divide the labcoats and the seamen, the birders and the farmers. 

Those alliances mimic Moss Landing’s own landscape, where the Salinas River meets the sea and migratory birds, like tourists on Highway 1, count on a restive stopover. It’s a place where biological energy propels the economic thrust, and the community, like a resilient ecosystem, adapts.

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