It is a tiny, unremarkable fish that feeds off microorganisms at the bottom of estuaries. But the unsung goby, environmentalists predict, just might provide the impetus for a solution to the decade-long controversy over how to clean up and restore Malibu Lagoon.
In the month since the goby was added to the federal endangered species list, residents, surfers, environmentalists and government agencies have been waiting to see how the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to ensure the survival of the two-inch-long fish, which lives and breeds in the brackish, polluted lagoon.
To maintain the goby's habitat, the state Department of Parks and Recreation is expected to adopt the fish and wildlife department's guidelines.
The plan is expected to call for strict regulation of mechanical breaching of a sandy berm that separates the lagoon from the ocean. State parks department employees bulldoze sections of the berm when the lagoon water reaches the brim so that septic tanks that feed into the lagoon do not back up.
But breaching the berm can harm the goby because the practice upsets the balance of salt and fresh water in the lagoon.
The guidelines, due in a few months, probably won't include recommendations to eliminate the lagoon's bacteria and disease-causing microorganisms because such pathogens have been found to not harm the goby.
Environmentalists nevertheless are optimistic that the goby may indirectly help the movement to clean up the lagoon.
If closely regulated breaching can be achieved to protect the goby, the thinking goes, then clearing the bureaucratic wrangling among government agencies that has blocked the cleaning up of the lagoon can't be far behind.
"I think the (federal endangered species) listing is going to be the driving force and catalyst to get restoration going," said Mark Gold, scientist for Heal the Bay. "Hopefully it will also get us off the dime to clean up the storm drain runoffs."
The goby has disappeared from half of California's few remaining wetlands and has been listed as a "state species of special concern" by the state Fish and Game Department for more than five years. Tidewater goby live in estuaries from Humboldt to San Diego counties, where, according to Cat Brown, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, they are in imminent danger of extinction.
The goby died off in the lagoon in the 1960s when the dredging of Malibu Creek and bulldozing of the upper lagoon for flood control covered the course, sandy bottom of the lagoon with sediment, destroying the goby's nesting area, said Sean Manion, an ecologist with the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District.
In April, 1991, Manion, using an $18,000 state parks department grant, reintroduced 52 goby to the Malibu Lagoon. They have reproduced to 500.
"People say, 'What is so special about the goby?' " Manion said. "It's just one more cog in the wheel of biodiversity interconnected to all other species ecologically, including man. The fear ecologists have is that you take a species out and there will be an environmental ripple effect or a cascade of extinctions to follow."
The lagoon, located at the mouth of Malibu Creek at Surfrider Beach, has been polluted by treated sewage flowing in from the Tapia Water Reclamation Plant along the creek as well as pesticides and human and animal waste from communities upstream.
Still, the pollutants have had little effect on the goby, whose worst threat is the rapid increase of water salinity brought on by breaching.
Parks employees began bulldozing the berm in 1983 after Malibu residents complained that their septic tanks were backing up. The berm is breached whenever the water level of the lagoon reaches 3.5 feet above the average low tide, Manion said.
Surfers, or "the shovel brigade," as they have been nicknamed, dig out their own break to avoid natural breaching, which occurs in the middle of Surfrider Beach's long wave break.
Some environmentalists believe surfers pose the greatest threat to the goby.
"It's a bad situation," said Rainer Hoenecke, a scientist for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project. "You are going to have to keep an officer posted there to keep surfers from shoveling out breaks."