Renowned marine biologist who died in Petaluma crash helped enlarge North Coast sanctuaries
Susan Williams was a Bodega Bay marine biologist and professor whose scientific expertise was instrumental in a decadeslong effort to expand federal protections for North Coast marine ecosystems.
She directed the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and served as a key advisor to California lawmakers working to protect coastal waters from oil and gas development. Her research showed how ocean health is connected to the wellbeing of coastal communities and humanity at large, and her ability to communicate simply about complicated science made her an essential adviser, said former U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a Petaluma Democrat who relied on Williams’ counsel in her battles for environmental protections.
“What a loss for our country and our oceans and everybody that has ever met her,” said Woolsey, who served in Congress until 2013. “She was able to put words to science and make it real.”
Willams, 66, was the lone fatality Tuesday in a six-vehicle crash on Lakeville Highway in Petaluma, where her Toyota Prius was struck head-on by Chevrolet Silverado pickup that authorities said crossed over into her lane.
Williams studied seagrass and coral reefs at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, and her research documented the impacts of warming ocean waters and human activity. Her studies covered the impact of invasive species brought into ports and the prevalence of plastic in the sea.
In 2005, she stood alongside Woolsey and Sen. Barbara Boxer when the two lawmakers announced legislation to expand the boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries.
The two North Coast national marine sanctuaries were ultimately expanded by the Obama administration in 2015 and now cover 4,581-square miles of ocean from northwest of the San Francisco Bay to Point Arena.
Today, Trump administration plans to sell oil and natural gas development rights to every ocean that touches the United States, including protected waters off Sonoma and Mendocino county coastlines, have led local lawmakers and scientists back into a conflict that many thought was settled in California.
“Not having her here to help us fight the new fight makes it harder,” Woolsey said.
She had also conducted research on the coral reefs of Indonesia, where she worked closely with students and scientists with Hasanuddin University in Makassar.
A mentor to students of all levels, Williams brought ocean researchers into classrooms in Sonoma County schools and created entry-level curricula for undergraduate students to attract them to marine science. She always encouraged women interested in science, said Gary Cherr, director of the Bodega Marine Laboratory and the Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute.
“She mentored women scientists around the world, not only graduate students at Davis,” Cherr said. “She came out of an era where women scientists were second-class scientists. She empowered them to be leaders in the field.”
Tuesday, Williams was driving from her home in Bodega Bay to teach a class for undergraduate students at UC Davis’ main campus. It was a course she developed for non-science majors called “Life in the Sea.”
In her vehicle, she had a cooler carrying seawater and a collection of seagrasses as well as sea anemones and other invertebrates that live in the Sonoma Coast rocky intertidal zone. Grace Ha, a doctoral candidate based at the laboratory who was being advised by Williams, said her mentor played an important role in many students’ education and careers.