Sea Creatures Warm, Comfy Outside, Pampered Inside : Edison Plant a Hotbed of Marine Research

Times Staff Writer

The infirmary inside the Southern California Edison plant in Redondo Beach has large tubs and cement blocks instead of cots and pillows. The patients are not people but bass, lobsters and an occasional octopus.

One lobster was recuperating recently from its unexpected trip inside the power plant. It was dragged in with the current through pipes that carry the water used to cool generators, then was caught on a screen. Plant employees found it there, and took it in a basket to a salt water tub to recover.

In another tub were two legally protected giant sea bass, which were injured when they were caught by fishermen, then were delivered to the plant for recovery and, their caretakers hope, breeding.

The ocean-side Edison plant does more than generate electricity--it also nurses injured and stressed-out marine life back to health, researches the plant's effect on the environment and breeds fish and other sea animals in a small, walled complex of laboratories across the street from the main generating station on Harbor Drive.

The laboratory opened in 1972 when the federal Environmental Protection Agency began requiring companies that make discharges into water do studies on local fish and sediment at the water bottom. Under a program known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, the power plant must demonstrate that it is using the best available technology to protect the environment.

But the lab has gone far beyond the required monitoring, its activities ranging over the years from the mass production of lobsters to playing matchmaker for various fish, with the giant sea bass at the center of the latest soap opera.

"A lot of the work we do here is unique, it's just not done anyplace else in the world," said Kevin Herbinson, a marine biologist who supervises the Edison lab.

Although Edison has another laboratory in Oxnard, most of its research is done at the Redondo Beach facility.

The power plant takes in 400,000 to 600,000 gallons of ocean water a minute to cool its generators and, unintentionally, about 20 pounds of fish a day, company officials said.

Fish are sucked in through the plant's two water intake systems in King Harbor, even though most fish can sense the strange currents caused by the pulling in of water and avoid being carried along, Herbinson said.

Fish are drawn to the area around the intakes because their food comes in with the current. Other creatures, such as lobsters, seals and octopuses, are attracted to the area to feed on the fish and sometimes follow them into the intake pipes, or enter the pipes out of curiosity.

"We tend to get the weaker animals," Herbinson said, referring to mammals that have sometimes been drawn into the plant. "Every one that we have checked has had parasites."

Screens and screened cages catch most of the marine life before the water gets to the generators. Workers return the healthy ones to the ocean, and the lab treats the injured or traumatized creatures, except the mammals, which are taken elsewhere.

Unlike many of the other fish, Edison's two giant sea bass did not wander into the generating station on their own. The fishermen who caught them are not legally allowed to keep the bass because they are rare, so they donated them to Edison, which has permits to keep giant sea bass.

One of the bass, Morris, who weighs 75 pounds and is about four feet long, now takes food out of his caretakers' hands. Edison officials hope that Morris, who they're almost certain is a male, will soon father some offspring.

Researchers think the 40-pound, 2 1/2-foot bass with Morris is a female. Scientists can only be sure of the sex of a fish if they analyze samples of internal tissue, but they have not been able to find any mature sex cells in the bass.

The scientists are guessing the sexes from experience: Morris seemed to like one giant bass, Herbinson said, but it eventually died from its hook wound. An autopsy showed that the fish was a female and that another bass, which Morris chased and killed, was a male. They decided that Morris is a male, too.

Edison researchers hope the two giant sea bass, who share a large, covered tank with a few smaller fish, will spawn and enable then to observe the eggs and larvae development of the fish, a process that has never been witnessed by scientists, Herbinson said.

Other Research

Researchers at the lab are also studying the eggs and development of halibut and kelp bass and the effects of pollution on fish, primarily on kelp bass. Studies also are being done with a sonar-equipped boat that helps scientists determine the size and number of various fish in the ocean.

"If there's always new fish every year, then we know they're healthy," Herbinson said. "If there's only big fish, then we'd be real worried."

Herbinson is the only Edison employee among the 15 people working at the Redondo Beach lab. The company contracts many of the other employees from area colleges and universities--Occidental College actually manages the lab--and the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

The lab has an annual budget of $80,000, not counting the costs of manpower for individual projects, which is about $600,000 a year, Herbinson said. The projects, which vary from year to year, are funded by grants, universities and colleges, museums, state agencies and Edison.

Edison also supplies area research labs with ocean water that is particularly free of pollutants and high in nutrients because it is pulled in by the company's intake pipe from a deep offshore canyon, said John Haddon, Edison's beach cities area manager.

At least two companies are interested in buying the water Edison discharges at its Ormond Beach station in Oxnard--not because of the nutrients, but because it is heated eight to 10 degrees above normal by the power plant's generators, making it potentially beneficial to commercial fish farms.

In the past, researchers at the Redondo Beach lab have doubled the growth rate of Maine lobster and abalone by raising them in the heated ocean water, Herbinson said.

The generating stations, including the one in Redondo Beach, now dump their warm water back into the ocean--improving the fishing in those immediate areas, he said.

The research has given Edison more marine life than it can handle. Over the years, the company has given the California Department of Fish and Game hundreds of thousands of abalone to return to the ocean.

Some Maine lobsters were sold as food after they were raised for six years in the heated water coming from the generators, Herbinson said. "I think that's a pretty good indicator that we're not causing any problems," he said.

The scientists are not allowed to take home any of the catch or the marine life produced at the lab for dinner, he said.

John Stephens, a professor of environmental biology at Occidental College, said a study he has been conducting since 1974 has shown that Edison's warm-water discharges have been good news for fisherman.

Greater Diversity

Researchers have found that the waters in and around King Harbor have a greater abundance and diversity of fish than do waters around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, he said.

The warm-water discharges from the plant create layers of water temperatures that are ideal for different types of fish, Herbinson said.

"Almost like an apartment building," he said, "you have the warm-water fish living up at the top and the cold-water fish at the bottom and everything else in between."

But not everyone sees the power plant as a good thing for marine life.

Dorothy Green, president of Heal the Bay, an environmental group, said that while the heated water makes some fish more abundant in the harbor, other fish that normally would live in the area are not found near the Edison plant because they prefer colder waters.

She criticized the company for killing animals, plants and plankton with its water intake system. Screens should be placed over the entrances to the pipes to keep larger fish and marine life out of the generating station, she said.

Herbinson said the entrance cannot be narrower than its current 10 inches because kelp and sea wood would get trapped and clog the system. The opening was narrowed from four feet about 18 months ago to keep out harbor seals, sea lions and giant sea turtles, all of which have occasionally made their way into the Edison facility over the years.

Although no mammals have entered the generating plant since the entrance to the pipes was narrowed, Herbinson is convinced that a determined sea lion could still get into the intake system. Edison once ran an experiment at Marineland in Rancho Palos Verdes that showed that "a sea lion would penetrate an opening three to four inches thick," he said. "It amazed us, but they have sort of loose joints so they can manipulate their bodies."

The narrowing of the intake point seems to have reduced the number of fish in the generating station as well, he said, but the data is still being analyzed.

Before the change, some of the mammals that got into the plant were reluctant to leave, preferring to rest on wall ledges around pools inside the station and forcing the company's "seal rescue team" to capture them with nets.

"They can be hard to get out because they're usually pretty content," Herbinson said, noting that inside the plant the animals can avoid storms and find a fresh supply of fish to eat. Edison officials would rather the animals lived elsewhere because the plant's operations are slowed down when the mammals are inside as a precaution to protect them.

When the animals were caught, employees from Edison or Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control returned the healthy ones to the ocean. Hurt or traumatized seals and sea lions have been taken to a marine mammal care center in Laguna Beach. Some went to the Marineland Animal Care Center before the park was closed in February.

But some sea lions just wouldn't take the hint when they were returned to the ocean. "We've had repeat offenders," Herbinson said, "so we think they know what's there, but (think) it's worth it."

One persistent sea lion returned once a week for about six weeks, he said. Each time the employees would set him free farther down the coast.

The lobster being cared for since being trapped several weeks ago in the generating station also seemed to like life in the infirmary.

Used to being waited on, it reached its claw upward when approached, hoping for a handout.

The lobster ignored the few small fish that swam about the tub and a few dead tank mates on the bottom.

On Tuesday, it was time for the lobster to check out. Lab employees carried it and a crab to another part of King Harbor and carefully set the pair into the ocean, free there to search for food on the ocean floor or try their luck again in the utility's intake pipes.

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