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Nature Lessons

The habitats of the ghost shrimp and black-crowned night heron are threatened by development in Long Beach.

March 28, 1997|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the industrialized mouth of the Los Angeles River, with America's busiest port on one side and the high-rise office buildings of downtown Long Beach on the other, you take your nature lessons where you find them.

Here--at the southern end of the Long Beach Freeway--the pristine traditions of John Muir give way to the realities of modern-day urban life: smokestacks, cargo container ships longer than two football fields, monster 18-wheelers and oil refineries.

Still, for those who want to look, it is not too hard to find some of the nature's great mini-dramas amid life in a big city.

Nestled amid the industrial bustle of Long Beach are the habitats of one of nature's simplest creatures, the ghost shrimp, as well as one of its most striking, the black-crowned night heron.

The shrimp live in the mud flats along the downtown shoreline. The heron nest in the ficus trees on the naval station property west of the Los Angeles River.

Now, after decades of coexistence, the habitats of both are being threatened. And, though the small dramas are going largely unnoticed, there are still some around to pay tribute and mourn what could be the victory of urbanization over small links in nature's food chain.

Progress, in the form of construction of the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific and the adjoining Queensway Bay commercial development on the east side of the river, has already wiped out some familiar landmarks at the foot of Long Beach's Pine Avenue.

The park in the bay that was informally known as Palm Island because of its dozens of palm trees has been denuded and is being reshaped by earthmovers as part of the aquarium project.

But the loss of the island is not being mourned as much as the destruction of the mud flats adjacent to it. The island was, after all, a man-made part of an earlier city project.

The mud flats were the home of the ghost shrimp, translucent 2- to 3-inch-long creatures that make great fish bait and wonderful food for ducks and shorebirds. They thrived in the brackish shallows of the lagoon. But the warm, fetid water in which they flourish did not fit into the tourist-based business plan devised by city planners. By deepening the lagoon and reconfiguring the waterway so that fresh, colder water from the bay flowed in, the ghost shrimp habitat was wiped out.

On the other side of the mouth of the Los Angeles River, at the center of the port, still another fight for survival is underway, this one involving the black-crowned night heron.

For years, these shorebirds have nested and thrived in the ficus and other trees planted on the park-like campus of the naval station, between the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

As part of the port's plans to redevelop the naval base, a mitigation survey disclosed that there were 500 pairs of the black crowned night heron nesting on the all-but-abandoned Navy property, making it one of the largest colonies on the California coast.

Glenn Perry, a big, barrel-chested man with a full white beard, is a former ironworker from Wilmington who ekes out a living as a commercial fisherman catching ghost shrimp and selling them as bait. On a good day he could wade into the old mud flats at the foot of Pine Avenue and fill a small basket with more than 1,200 shrimp.

But Perry is in danger of losing his place in the always shaky food chain as fish and birds struggle for survival along the coast. The city, in a trade-off with environmental regulators, agreed to mitigate the damage to the mud flats by rebuilding them along the east bank of the Los Angeles River. But Perry says the odors are so noxious along the river that he probably won't be able to fish there.

"This is something you don't want to lose," he said, pointing to the mud flats not too long before the earthmovers moved in. "These mud flats are the best habitat for the ghost shrimp in the area."

As he waded out for an afternoon of fishing, he was met with ducks and grebes competing for the same shrimp he was after.

To mitigate the damage to the nesting areas of the black-crowned night heron, the Port of Long Beach is proposing to build a new home for birds at the far end of the breakwater that curls around the naval property like a horseshoe.

The ambitious plan involves transplanting ficus trees, installing sprinklers to water the vegetation, constructing a windbreak and using mating calls to attract the birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying the plan.

Skeptics, such as Pat Baird, a professor of biological sciences at Cal State Long Beach, abound. She said the naval station's heron population represents one-third of all the black-crowned night herons in Southern California. Although they now are not on the endangered species list, they soon could be, she said.

"The port is treating these birds as if they were cattle," she said. "With cattle you can put the hay in the next field, open the gate, and the cattle will go there to feed. You can't do that with wild animals."

"The danger we humans have is that we are too arrogant," she said. "We are just one cog in the wheel, and so are the night herons. The world would be a far poorer place without all these species."

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