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Good Tidings at Port

After decades when nothing could survive in the fouled waters, sea life is returning to L.A.'s harbor area thanks to environmental laws.

September 04, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The water at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex was once so foul that yacht owners rid their hulls of barnacles simply by anchoring there for a few days. Pollutants and the lack of oxygen killed them off.

But a soon-to-be-released biological survey of the nation's busiest harbor has confirmed what fishermen have known for years: Although it remains a distressed environment, the port is full of life, and there are more kinds of it than have been seen in half a century.

Just beneath the trash bobbing on waves often coated with gleaming oil swim mackerel, bass and a small but growing number of brilliant orange garibaldi, the official state marine fish. Clinging to its breakwater are lobsters and crabs, octopus and bat stars. Burrowing in the mud are worms 14 inches long and fatter than hot dogs.

A 15-acre strip of sand on the Port of Los Angeles' sprawling Pier 400 has become a nesting ground for 3,500 elegant terns and 600 endangered least terns. Cruising the kelp in a shallow water habitat created beside a cargo ship lane are halibut up to 4 feet long.

JoAnn Goeman, co-owner of Eddie's Marina, one of the oldest marinas in the Port of Los Angeles, recalled how her 20-year-old grandson walked into her office this summer lugging a "lobster so big he had to hug it to lift it."

"That lobster, which was carrying eggs, weighed about 20 pounds," she said. "He caught it with his bare hands on the Long Beach side of the harbor." They didn't have the heart to cook it, and they let it go.

Another good sign: Boat owners from San Pedro's Ports O' Call Village to Long Beach's Pier Point Landing complain that worms, barnacles and algae encrust their tie lines, something boaters never had to worry about a few decades ago.

Biologists say nature is responding to incremental improvements in water quality, the legacy of state and federal laws curbing pollution, and the closure of marinas, Navy shipyards and canneries that for decades spewed toxic chemicals, human waste and fish guts into the ocean.

True, the harbor will never resemble the placid tidal estuaries and mudflats that existed before 1900. Sediments in some so-called hot spots, such as the mouth of the Dominguez Channel, still contain extremely high levels of carcinogenic DDT and PCBs, which accumulate in the tissue of bottom-feeding fish.

A witches' brew of debris, bacteria, pesticides and other toxic substances flows into the harbor from inland cities whenever it rains. Some boat owners illegally dump human waste, garbage, fuel and oil.

And above the waters, the air is getting dirtier. No other site in the region produces more air pollution than the port, and on a typical day cargo ships release more smog-forming gases than 1 million cars.

Nonetheless, the wildlife taking up residence in the harbor's docks, artificially created shallows and deep-dredged channels are "part of a permanent trend," said Karen Green, who led the first biological survey in two decades of the 15,000-acre harbor complex.

By her count, there are about 44,591,000 fish in the harbor, representing 67 species.

"The good news," she said, "is that it proves environmental activism works. What we are seeing is an example of what can happen when activism, environmental laws and pollution-abatement controls work together."

Mitzy Taggart, a staff scientist for Heal the Bay and an expert on ocean sediments and pollution, would not argue with that. However, she cautioned that "while we've made progress, we have a long way to go."

"We absolutely should expect the harbor to meet the basic requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, meaning that it should be fishable and swimmable," Taggart said. "For right now, I would advise against eating nonmigratory fish, such as white croaker, because it is likely that some of them have levels of pollutants in their tissue that exceed safe levels of consumption."

Still, the idea that the harbor would ever again support a thriving ecosystem seemed farfetched in the 1950s, when marine biologist Don Reish conducted the first studies of its sediments and water.

By that time, the region was already so polluted that shipyard and cannery workers frequently contracted eye infections, and some channels and inlets had been declared biological dead zones with zero dissolved oxygen.

At the snug Fish Harbor, tons of tuna scales and bones heaved into the water by a dozen seafood processors would not decompose because there were no bacteria to feed on them.

"People didn't care about such things back then," Reish said.

Stephen McDonough, who has been collecting marine specimens for science classes in the Los Angeles County Office of Education for three decades, has chronicled the toll.

"In the early 1970s," he said, "we were collecting lots of white croaker with chemical burns on their bodies caused by nasty stuff washing in from inland chrome plating companies.

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