As dawn breaks over Port Hueneme, a fleet of fishing boats unloads tons of slippery squid plucked from the night sea, subsequently spilling inky waste water and gelatin-like scum into the water.
It's a living for the fishermen, but it makes a mess that other harbor businesses find intolerable.
In a crackdown on such pollution, California water quality authorities declared this squid boat dumping a public nuisance and slapped five fishing fleets with violation notices last month. The agency ordered the companies to immediately cease the practice or face fines of up to $5,000 each per day.
But fishermen dispute the severity of the problem. They say they are cleaning up their act by collecting waste water and discharging it to the open ocean rather than within the harbor, a remedy water quality officials encourage. The fishermen also say the situation is being blown out of proportion.
"This stuff came from the ocean and it's being returned to the ocean. It's not like dumping chemicals or DDT or something like that," said Marc Mabry of Long Beach-based Del Mar Seafood.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 10, 1999 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Squid--A photo caption Monday incorrectly described the activity of a worker at the Port of Hueneme. Jorge Langarica was shoveling ice into a container of squid that had been offloaded.
Nonetheless, the waste discharges appear to be continuing within the harbor. When the boats returned to Port Hueneme one morning last week, telltale squid scum was left floating on the water after crews loaded processed squid into trucks and hosed down the docks.
"It's just sludgy waste water with black ink and protein foam. It smells real bad and there's sea gulls everywhere," said Matt Philipp, the Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper, who patrols coastal waters for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Center. "In a harbor, that kind of biological loading of wastes creates an impact on fish."
This waste water is left over when squid are sucked from refrigerated cargo holds aboard boats and loaded into trucks. It contains wastes from the mollusks, including ink they spew as a defensive mechanism and gooey slime created as their bodies begin to decay. The waste is highly concentrated--a single boat can carry about 40 tons of squid--and awash with ammonia and depleted oxygen, making it toxic to fish and other marine life.
The Port Hueneme Sportfishing Co., located near where the squid boats dock, has had trouble this year keeping sardines alive in its bait tanks because of poor water conditions, said owner Bruce Williams.
Nearby, the nonprofit Channel Islands Marine Resource Institute, an aquaculture research center, ceased captive breeding of white sea bass three weeks ago because squid waste water created conditions harmful to the fish, said institute co-director Tom McCormick.
Tests showed ammonia in the harbor reaches levels 15 times more than a minimally acceptable limit of 0.2 parts per million and quantities of dissolved oxygen one-fifth the normal level, McCormick said.
The pollution also threatens plans to commercially raise red abalone at Channel Islands Ocean Farm at Port Hueneme. John McMullen, managing director of the privately-run farm, said the squid fishing fleet needs to act swiftly to clean up.
"They decided to do it this way because it was easy and they didn't realize the impact it had on the harbor," McCormick said. "But this is the '90s and everyone has to work together to achieve clean water. There are alternatives they can do so it doesn't shut the fishery down."
For the squid fishermen, the complaints come during a season of spectacular catches as great schools of squid ply the Santa Barbara Channel--possibly following cooler ocean currents in the wake of La Nina weather patterns.
A squid fishing boom in California has led to a surge in the number of boats chasing the slick, luminescent mollusks in recent years. Squid fleets once concentrated in Monterey Bay, although now they also operate from San Pedro, Terminal Island and Ventura Harbor. About 220 boats search for squid in California waters, triple the number from nine years ago, ranking it as one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative types of commercial fishing in the state, according to the Department of Fish and Game.
But as catches increase, so have complaints about the conservation ethic the upstart industry takes to sea.
For example, scientists at Channel Islands National Park suspect stadium-caliber lights affixed to boats to lure squid to the surface at night are exposing rare birds on the islands to predators. Large numbers of dead Xantus' murrelets have been reported at Santa Barbara Island.
Nesting failures among rare brown pelicans--indicated by unhatched eggs and dead chicks--on west Anacapa Island have also increased this year, scientists said. Squid boats working waters around those two islands illuminate the night sky with enough wattage that workers on the islands say they can sometimes read magazines at midnight.