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Chadwick School students have a hand in coastal preservation

A marine biology class has used its field research along the Palos Verdes coastline to help inform a task force considering establishing preserve areas where fishing would be limited or banned.

October 22, 2009|Carla Rivera

Trevor Niemann has grown up along the cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, with the Pacific Ocean as his backyard playground. To this 17-year-old avid beachgoer, it just makes sense to be concerned about the welfare of the coastal waters and marine life.

Niemann, a senior at the Chadwick School, signed up for marine biology this year, but he and his classmates have taken their studies outside of the classroom, supporting proposals under review by a state-appointed task force to preserve a large swath of coastal water from fishing.

In asserting their position, they are challenging critics in the commercial fishing and tourism industry who say the restrictions could ruin their livelihoods.

But the students say their field research, which included digging into tide pools, measuring waves and charting the decline of species such as starfish and mussels, backs them up. Their work has won plaudits from scientists and sea urchin fishermen.

Students on Wednesday night addressed a public hearing required as part of the Marine Life and Protection Act, which was adopted in 1999 to establish a network of preserves where fishing would be limited or banned. The task force will make a recommendation to the state Fish and Game Commission about where the Southern California preserve should be located.

The students were given only two minutes of public comment and chose six classmates to present their case.

Ahead of the meeting, they said they were thrilled that their work could influence such an important decision.

"When you're younger, people don't think you can make that much of a difference, but this is such a cool experience," said Elisabeth Mitchell, 18. "It's really cool to go to the beach and know everything about it -- the sand you're standing on, the way waves are breaking -- and knowing that because we're educated about it, we can help fix what's wrong."

The students also believe that they have a special stake in the outcome.

"This is our home, where we grew up, and it affects us more than anyone else. It's going to affect us for the rest of our lives," Niemann said.

Not everyone agrees. Paul Romanowski, a member of the Los Angeles Fathomiers who attended the meeting as a representative of spear and shore-based fishermen, said that he supports less restrictive plans on fishermen and that the students are well-intentioned but wrong.

"I don't think they have the depth of understanding," he said. "I've been diving in those waters longer than they've been alive."

Chadwick teacher Amy Hill started the marine biology class five years ago and began collecting data from the main study site, a rocky intertidal area of the Palos Verdes coastline called Ocean Trails, located below the Trump golf course.

Her classes charted drops in the diversity and abundance of plant and animal species. California mussels, for example, covered rocks in the study site in 2005 but have declined in every subsequent year, she said.

During the last school year, students spoke at two preservation meetings, made a documentary and presented their research at a Palos Verdes Estates City Council meeting.

"I'm really awed by them every day," Hill said. "They're amazing people who have huge hearts, great minds and moral courage."

The students were initially hoping that Ocean Trails would be protected, but the site was not included in the final maps under consideration. They are now supporting a map that creates a state marine reserve containing some intertidal areas off the coast of Palos Verdes, where they'd still be able to study.

Russell Paulson, 17, said he entered the marine biology class wary of scientific pronouncements and skeptical about preservation efforts. Now the junior lifeguard is a believer.

"Being out there firsthand really changes your perspective," he said. "Literally getting your feet wet and being able to see an octopus under water gives you a better perspective."


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