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Life Ending Underfoot in Corona del Mar Tide Pools

Environment: Sea creatures are fast being lost to visitor traffic. Newport Beach will intervene.

April 12, 1999|ELEANOR YANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The thousands of students, tourists, fishermen and hungry people who visit the Little Corona del Mar tide pools are loving the area to death.

Some marine animals are disappearing from the craggy rocks of Orange County's most popular tide pools, and wildlife biologists are alarmed by the steady degradation of the spot at the south end of Corona del Mar State Beach.

"This area is really being hammered," said Orange Coast College professor Dennis Kelly, one of the two local professors independently conducting research on the area for 25 years. Compared with other, more secluded tide pools in the same area that only 10 years ago shared the same amount of sea life, Little Corona has lost as much as half the number of species in certain areas, including starfish and octopuses, Kelly has documented.

The situation has led an unlikely coalition of college researchers, surfer-environmentalists and teachers from a local elementary school to try turning the tide, especially of foot traffic and mussel bait-seeking fishermen.

Over the last five months, their efforts have accelerated, prompting the city of Newport Beach to develop a major plan, expected to be unveiled within the next few weeks, to improve the situation.

Six teachers at a Newport Beach elementary school declared last month that they are boycotting the tide pools, instead visiting the Long Beach Aquarium, in hopes of setting an example for schools to follow.

No other tide pool in the county receives as many visitors in organized groups. The Newport Beach Fire and Marine Department, which schedules school groups and has recently placed a limit of 300 students visiting on any given day, recorded up to 15,000 students visiting the site in 1996. Crystal Cove scheduled about 7,690 that year, and Dana Point recorded 12,204 students. Many other tourists come without registering with the department.

Little Corona is only the latest rocky area along the California coast, and as far as Oregon and New Zealand, where humans have wrought havoc on this delicate habitat for plants, shellfish and some young fish. Cal State Fullerton Professor Steve Murray, who has been conducting extensive research on the Orange County tide pools for the last several years, adds that although Little Corona is among the worst hit, tide pools along the entire Orange County coast have been suffering in the last few decades. Only 9% of Orange County's coast is rocky intertidal land, and the easy bus access to Little Corona makes it the most heavily trafficked in the 18 kilometers of Orange County tide pools.

In some Northern California locations, conservation efforts have come too late, leaving sickly tide pools that will take decades to recover. Areas of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, 25 miles south of San Francisco, are periodically partitioned for months at a time to allow sea life to recover.

At Little Corona, the balance of sea life already is seriously out of whack.

"This place, when I first started studying marine biology, was like a Garden of Eden," Kelly said. "It has diminished significantly."

The larger mollusks, including mussels and snails, are disappearing in alarming numbers, Murray has found. The larger the organisms, the more eggs and sperm are released during reproductive cycles, so their removal plays a significant role in the future of those species.

The occasional visitor might not notice, Murray said, because a few hearty species such as barnacles and hermit crabs are running rampant while several other species are diminishing.

"What happens if something comes along that makes that one strong species sick?" Murray asked. "It would be an environmental disaster. The whole community would be gone. It's clear that Little Corona is way out of balance now."

He sees recreational fishermen and hungry people who pluck off sea creatures as the worst threats to Little Corona.

When fishermen remove mussels from their rock beds for bait, they are doing far more damage than simply killing the animals they take, he explained. They also are inadvertently loosening protein strands holding surrounding mussels, allowing the tide to pull them more easily. In research among eight tide pool areas surrounding Little Corona, Murray found that on average, there is always one fisherman at each site during low tide.

The same is the case, Murray said, for the increasing numbers of people who are removing and harvesting shellfish at Little Corona.

"We have quite a few people who have grown up in areas where going down to the shore and harvesting organisms is done," he said. "It's quite prevalent in Southeast Asia and Latin America. So it shouldn't surprise us that there are people here engaged in the same activities."

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