UC San Diego serves as the home of research on Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve

The Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve.
(Courtesy of Heather Henter)

Many different user groups in Mission Bay will be affected by the amendment of the Mission Bay Park Master Plan, known as De Anza Cove Natural.

But how users will be affected by any proposed changes to the Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve is based on research by scientists, students and volunteers at the University of California, San Diego.

“Kendall-Frost is one of 41 ecological reserves owned and managed by universities across California,” said Heather Henter, executive director of the UC San Diego Natural Reserve System. “The university’s role is education, research and public service.”

What the university doesn’t do is become involved in the political side of the issues.

“As individuals that work at the university and are involved with the marsh, we can voice our opinions, and we have done that,” Henter said. “But it is strictly our personal opinions — the university doesn’t take a stand.”

Nevertheless, the work done by the many people involved firsthand with the wetlands is an important part of the overall picture of what the area means to not just Mission Bay, but all of San Diego.

A team of UCSD scientists collecting mud cores, used for measuring carbon in the Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve.
A team of UC San Diego scientists collecting mud cores, used for measuring carbon in the Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve.
(Courtesy of Heather Henter)

According to the UCSD website,, the Mission Bay marshes have been used as education and research sites by students and faculty at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography since 1942.

In 1952, the University of California acquired parcels of the upper wetland from the Kendall and Frost families. The reserve was incorporated into the Natural Lands and Waters Reserve System in 1965.

The lower boundary with the City of San Diego’s Northern Wildlife Preserve is not marked, as the entire 40 acres is managed as a whole. The UC Natural Reserve System coordinates research and teaching use, while city Parks and Recreation handles law enforcement.

The UC San Diego site covers 16 acres, and includes an observation deck and a trailer with utilities and lab space. However, the trailer is currently under construction. No personnel are stationed on-site.

The university keeps multiple databases, including plant and bird species lists, on-site research, aerial photos and more.

“Coastal wetlands are a pretty unusual environment, as the water is salt water,” Henter said. “Most of the plants and animals found here can only survive in a coastal wetland environment, and are not the same species you see around your own backyards.”

The urban setting of the reserve requires constant active management.

“Kendall-Frost is a pretty small marsh,” Henter said. “The problem with a really small habitat is that all of the organisms in the habitat are impacted by the human environment surround the marsh. In a larger marsh, there is some sort of buffer from noise or pollution, for example. It doesn’t impact the middle of the area that much.”

Youths seining for fish at a Wander the Wetlands event in the Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve.
(Courtesy of Heather Henter)

At only 40 acres, however, there is no where to escape.

“We would very much like to have a larger wetlands, as the function of the ecosystem would be affected; the marsh would be healthier if it were bigger,” she said.

Henter pointed out several services provided to the community by the marsh, including cleaning the water, sequestering carbon, absorbing high water and acting as nurseries.

Nearly every function would be improved if the marsh were bigger.

“If Rose Creek was able to flow through the marsh, the water would be cleaner,” Henter said. She added that the creek would help filter out water pollutants and increase sediment use by the plants, rather than flowing into the bay.

Carbon sequestration is also an important function of wetlands, and coastal wetlands sequester more carbon than any other wetlands in the world, Henter said.

She also pointed out that during super high tides, the marsh absorbs a lot of the really high water.

“When you walk in the mud, it is spongy — the kids like to bounce in it,” Henter said. “And since the water levels in Mission Bay are expected to rise due to climate change, the flood prevention aspect is pretty important.”

The wetlands also act as nurseries for juvenile fish, which grow up protected by the shallow waters and lack of strong currents, which the marsh provides.

The marsh is also important to many birds, and is ideal for bird watching.

There is an almost continuous flow of bird species on the marsh throughout the year, since Mission Bay is a stopover for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

Adults seining for fish on an overcast day at a Wander the Wetlands event in the Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve.
(Courtesy of Heather Henter)

Two viewing platforms are on Crown Point Drive, one near Honeycutt Street and the other near Lamont Street.

Endangered bird species in the marsh include the light-footed clapper rails and Belding’s savannah sparrows.

Winter birds include waterfowl such as bufflehead, Northern pintail, Northern shoveler, Brant and gulls.

Summer species include several terns, including black skimmers, Caspian, elegant, royal, Forster’s and California least terns. Also found feeding in the area are California brown pelicans.

Shorebirds often seen in the marsh areas include willets, dowitchers, curlews and whimbrels.

Raptors include osprey, kestrels, marsh hawks, red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons.

Many other birds can be seen in the marsh, including several that are endangered or of special concern. For a current list, visit

Smaller animals, such as crabs, worms and snails are abundant in the marsh. There are also snakes, lizards and mammals.

Fish include several species of rays, California killifish, topsmelt and more, while young halibut use the marsh as a refuge before traveling into the open ocean.

The birds, fish and other inhabitants of the marsh are typical research subjects. Some current research projects include studying a common parasite, an abundant fish species and climate change.

The trematode parasite, Euhaphlorchis californiensis, needs three hosts to complete its life cycle — the horn snail, the California killifish and marsh birds. Once the parasite infects the fish, it encysts on the brain, making them much easier to catch than non-infected fish. The research seeks to understand how infection status influences survivorship.

During this work party , participants were able to weed out invasive devil thorns plants.
During this work party at Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve, participants were able to weed out invasive devil thorns plants.
(Courtesy of Heather Henter)

A second study focuses on the California killifish as a source of essential ecological information. Another current study uses El Niño as a tool to better understand the impact on climate change on the salt marsh community.

Henter noted that the university also conducts several projects with Mission Bay High School.

The university balances its role maintaining the reserve as a functioning ecosystem, while facilitating numerous pubic events and activities.

Henter encourages the public to get involved with the university’s work at the marsh, whether it’s a one-time event or regular participation.

“People can come out and birdwatch, do fish seining with a fish biologist, join work parties and other events,” she said.

Wander the Wetlands events are usually held from 9 to 11 a.m. on the first and third Saturday of each month.

On the fourth Saturday, from 9 to 11:30 a.m., there is a work party. Classes and other groups are welcome, Henter said.

For details and schedule changes, check the Kendall Frost Reserve Facebook page. The meeting location is the north end of Crown Point Park.

The UC San Diego Natural Reserve System is at 2055 Pacific Beach Drive. For details, call 858-534-2077 or email