The infirmary inside the Southern California Edison plant in Redondo Beach has large tubs and cement blocks instead of cots and pillows. The patients are not people but bass, lobsters and an occasional octopus.
One lobster was recuperating recently from its unexpected trip inside the power plant. It was dragged in with the current through pipes that carry the water used to cool generators, then was caught on a screen. Plant employees found it there, and took it in a basket to a salt water tub to recover.
In another tub were two legally protected giant sea bass, which were injured when they were caught by fishermen, then were delivered to the plant for recovery and, their caretakers hope, breeding.
The ocean-side Edison plant does more than generate electricity--it also nurses injured and stressed-out marine life back to health, researches the plant's effect on the environment and breeds fish and other sea animals in a small, walled complex of laboratories across the street from the main generating station on Harbor Drive.
The laboratory opened in 1972 when the federal Environmental Protection Agency began requiring companies that make discharges into water do studies on local fish and sediment at the water bottom. Under a program known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, the power plant must demonstrate that it is using the best available technology to protect the environment.
But the lab has gone far beyond the required monitoring, its activities ranging over the years from the mass production of lobsters to playing matchmaker for various fish, with the giant sea bass at the center of the latest soap opera.
"A lot of the work we do here is unique, it's just not done anyplace else in the world," said Kevin Herbinson, a marine biologist who supervises the Edison lab.
Although Edison has another laboratory in Oxnard, most of its research is done at the Redondo Beach facility.
The power plant takes in 400,000 to 600,000 gallons of ocean water a minute to cool its generators and, unintentionally, about 20 pounds of fish a day, company officials said.
Fish are sucked in through the plant's two water intake systems in King Harbor, even though most fish can sense the strange currents caused by the pulling in of water and avoid being carried along, Herbinson said.
Fish are drawn to the area around the intakes because their food comes in with the current. Other creatures, such as lobsters, seals and octopuses, are attracted to the area to feed on the fish and sometimes follow them into the intake pipes, or enter the pipes out of curiosity.
"We tend to get the weaker animals," Herbinson said, referring to mammals that have sometimes been drawn into the plant. "Every one that we have checked has had parasites."
Screens and screened cages catch most of the marine life before the water gets to the generators. Workers return the healthy ones to the ocean, and the lab treats the injured or traumatized creatures, except the mammals, which are taken elsewhere.
Unlike many of the other fish, Edison's two giant sea bass did not wander into the generating station on their own. The fishermen who caught them are not legally allowed to keep the bass because they are rare, so they donated them to Edison, which has permits to keep giant sea bass.
One of the bass, Morris, who weighs 75 pounds and is about four feet long, now takes food out of his caretakers' hands. Edison officials hope that Morris, who they're almost certain is a male, will soon father some offspring.
Researchers think the 40-pound, 2 1/2-foot bass with Morris is a female. Scientists can only be sure of the sex of a fish if they analyze samples of internal tissue, but they have not been able to find any mature sex cells in the bass.
The scientists are guessing the sexes from experience: Morris seemed to like one giant bass, Herbinson said, but it eventually died from its hook wound. An autopsy showed that the fish was a female and that another bass, which Morris chased and killed, was a male. They decided that Morris is a male, too.
Edison researchers hope the two giant sea bass, who share a large, covered tank with a few smaller fish, will spawn and enable then to observe the eggs and larvae development of the fish, a process that has never been witnessed by scientists, Herbinson said.
Researchers at the lab are also studying the eggs and development of halibut and kelp bass and the effects of pollution on fish, primarily on kelp bass. Studies also are being done with a sonar-equipped boat that helps scientists determine the size and number of various fish in the ocean.
"If there's always new fish every year, then we know they're healthy," Herbinson said. "If there's only big fish, then we'd be real worried."