Anglers Pull in Perch Lured to Warm Water--but There's a Catch

Times Staff Writer

To rush-hour commuters whizzing across the bridge on 7th Street, it's just another flood control channel.

Yet on almost any day of the week, this barren bank along the San Gabriel River attracts scores of fishermen willing to climb fences and ignore no-trespassing signs in order to catch their fill. On a good day, they say, an average Joe can catch more than 100 African perch here in a few short hours. On an average day, there's an almost guaranteed catch of 30 to 40 just for having a hook in the water.

"This is the kind of place you dream about finding," said James Dillon, 40, a machinist from Bell Gardens who, after two hours of effort on a recent Saturday morning, had about 20 fish in his bucket.

Indeed, the freshwater drainage ditch with concrete and rock banks near the juncture of 7th Street and Studebaker Road has become a hot fishing spot in Southern California, despite the fact that fishing there is strictly illegal.

It is hot both literally and figuratively: figuratively because the anglers come from as far away as Pasadena and San Diego; literally because the water has a higher ambient temperature than surrounding waters due to a nearby electrical generating plant.

Water Warmed by Outflow

It is the outflow from the Southern California Edison plant a few hundred yards away that experts believe attracts the extraordinary number of fish to the area.

According to Kevin Herbinson, a research scientist for Edison, the water is warmed by its constant circulation at 300,000 gallons per minute through the plant's gigantic condensers, where it is used as a coolant. Returned to the river at 15 to 20 degrees higher than when it was sucked out, he said, the hot water raises the temperature of the river by about four degrees within 1,000 feet of the plant, resulting in the proliferation of warm-water fish.

Their density is so great that "it ends up kind of like an apartment building," said Herbinson, adding that the same phenomenon has been scientifically documented at other sites where electrical generating stations operate.

For African perch--which average about six inches in length and are related to the African ciclid popular among local tropical aquarium enthusiasts--it is a perfect environment. Indigenous to certain warm rivers in Africa, the exotic fish were originally imported and planted in the county's drainage system as part of an algae and mosquito abatement program in the early 1970s. Today, according to Jim St. Amant, a fisheries supervisor for the state Department of Fish and Game, they are so plentiful that "we think it's great" for people to catch them without legal limit.

'Prolific' Perch

"It's pretty good fishing and you certainly can't hurt the (fish) population by fishing for them," St. Amant said. "They're so prolific, it's unbelievable."

Not everyone is as tolerant.

Roslyn Robson, a public affairs spokeswoman for the Public

Works Department, which maintains the county's 470 miles of flood control channels including the San Gabriel River, said the department has posted prominent no-fishing signs in the area because it is not set up as a recreational fishing zone.

"Fishing is not what we are mandated to do," Robson said. Before allowing recreational fishing, she said, the department would have to provide adequate toilets and trash barrels as well as regular patrols to protect itself against liability claims and to preserve the health and safety of those who use the facility. "To open it up (to fishing) would take a major study and the budgeting of funds," Robson said.

Three times a week, according to Robson, department employees survey the area and ask any fishermen they see to leave. "Our job is to make reasonable attempts to secure the area and we feel we have done that," she said.

Occasionally they are aided by Long Beach police officers, who can enforce state laws calling for fines of up to $500 and jail terms of up to six months for people who trespass in the flood control channel.

Low Priority for Police

But Mural Asbill, an officer in charge of community relations, said that arresting trespassers is not a high priority at the Police Department. "Mostly we respond to calls," said Asbill, adding that not many calls come in regarding activities in the flood control channel. Though a police helicopter patrols the area regularly, he said, its occupants primarily concern themselves with spotting illegal swimmers rather than illegal fishermen.

"There's no place to do a regular patrol down there," Asbill said. "You can't even get a car in there."

So the fishermen--some of them unemployed Asian or Latino immigrants who rely on their catch for food--stream in by the dozens. On a recent overcast Saturday, about 40 dangled hooks in the water. Most said they did not consider the fish they caught to be contaminated, a claim supported by Edison officials who say their plant adds no pollutants to the water. Also, chemists at the state Department of Health Services say they have never tested the fish caught in the channel because they have received no complaints about them.

Many of the anglers come simply for the fun.

"The water is my serenity," said Shirley James, 34, a Los Angeles guidance counselor who noted that she caught 105 fish in two hours the first time she tried the channel and has been hooked on it ever since. "It gives me a chance to put on my tacky pants and tennis shoes."

Just 10 yards away, however, serenity was in short supply as Norwalk resident Orlie Botello, 25, tried vainly to ignore the irritating whoosh of cars rocketing across the 7th Street overpass directly above his head. "When you go fishing, you don't want to hear the city," Botello complained, "you want to catch fish."

A gentle tug on his line, however, changed his tune. "Fishing is the best high in the world," he said later with a sigh, the last part of his sentence nearly lost in the drone of a passing bus.

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