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Dumping of Killer Algae in Water May Be Barred

Legislature: Bill would require organism used as decor in aquariums to be frozen and buried. It threatens plants and oxygen in waterways.

February 20, 2001|TONY PERRY and USHA LEE McFARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — A new tactic is being tried in the fight against the killer algae that threatens the coastal waters of Southern California: legislation.

A bill to be introduced this week in Sacramento would make it illegal to dump the dreaded Caulerpa taxifolia algae, common to many home aquariums, into any body of water.

Should the bill pass, the only lawful way to dispose of the greenish, wispy-looking stuff will be to freeze it and bury it in a landfill.

Sponsored by legislators from San Diego and Orange counties, the bill is in response to outbreaks of Caulerpa in Huntington Harbour and the Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad. Although harmless to humans, the algae smothers plant life, sucks the oxygen from water and can turn a thriving waterway into a dead zone.

The outbreak in Southern California waters marks the first infestation in North America. Unchecked for years, the algae severely damaged 10,000 acres of seabed off Spain, France, Monaco and Italy.

"This is an environmental disaster waiting to happen," said Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), main sponsor of the anti-algae bill.

The fast-growing Caulerpa can displace native sea grasses that provide sustenance for lobster, halibut, salmon and sea turtles. Caulerpa, in turn, is toxic and provides no nutrients.

"The ecological effects are equivalent to replacing a rain forest with bamboo," said Caulerpa expert Susan Williams, director of UC Davis' Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory.

Because so many related algae look alike, the bill will provide a kind of biological guilt-by-association clause, banning the entire genus.

Already banned under the federal Noxious Weeds Act, Caulerpa taxifolia is sold on the Internet. Before it was banned, it was often given freely to customers by aquarium stores as a decorative addition to saltwater tanks.

After the algae was found last summer by divers in the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, just off Interstate 5, state environmentalists sought to eradicate it with massive amounts of liquid chlorine, a poison. But the algae has proved a hardy foe. It apparently survived the assault and is again on the increase.

"Teeny, tiny pieces you can barely see can start a new infestation," said Marc Doalson, environmental specialist at the Santa Ana regional office of the state Water Quality Control Board.

At Huntington Harbour, work is 80% complete on attacking two infested areas with chlorine. "I think we caught it," Doalson said.

Still, the state plans to monitor both the Carlsbad lagoon and Huntington Harbour for five years.

Just how the algae outbreak occurred is unclear. One theory is that an aquarium hobbyist--despite numerous warnings by aquarium societies--dumped a tank in a waterway.

With that in mind, the legislation would impose a fine on anyone caught possessing, transporting or dumping the algae. But eradication of Caulerpa taxifolia may be an impossible goal.

Louie Ortiz, chief executive officer of San Diego-based West Coast Aquarium Industries, which does business worldwide, said Caulerpa taxifolia can be lurking undetected on "live rocks." Those are small, brightly colored rocks that are commonly sold to hobbyists to adorn their aquariums.

Once the rocks hit saltwater, the algae begin to spread rapidly.

Even dedicated foes concede a certain admiration for the relentless rapaciousness of the stuff.

"We're probably going to see Caulerpa again, unfortunately," Williams said. "It's an amazing organism."

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