When Rodolphe Streichenberger stands at the end of Balboa Pier, he doesn't see what most people see.
He sees a vast desert.
Streichenberger's mind peers beyond the murky currents to the bottom, and to miles and miles of barren, shifting sand. It is here, in the blue-greenish light of the ocean's depths, that Streichenberger plans to transform an empty expanse nearly void of fish and plant life into a forest of giant kelp.
In a scheme that state fish and game officials describe as the most ambitious attempt ever to farm the sea off the California coast, Streichenberger envisions schools of calico bass and sculpin returning to local waters lush with brown kelp. Mussels, abalo-
ne and lobsters would thrive under the kelp's thick canopy.
The forest would restore an ecological balance to coastal waters and produce a harvestable crop of shellfish for its operators, he said.
In May, the entrepreneur-turned-aquaculturist obtained a five-year lease from the state Department of Fish and Game for a 10-acre undersea plot about 300 yards off Balboa Pier.
All Streichenberger needs, he says, is $100,000 to seed his saltwater forest by planting some 2,000 kelp shoots on the ocean bottom.
Planting a series of marine forests along California's coast is a scheme that Streichenberger, 59, has harbored since he left France two years ago to test his plan in the temperate waters off Newport Beach.
Streichenberger, who was born into a family of wealthy European industrialists and lives on family income, prefers not to talk about himself. At Paris University, he studied business and economics. But since the late 1970s, he has been involved with private marine biology research, investigating ways to farm the sea.
He is not the first to recognize the importance of kelp to other marine life, which use it for food and shelter. Others have nurtured kelp beds to life by anchoring plants to underwater rocks or man-made reefs, but rarely from the sandy ocean floor.
Without something to latch on to, scientists say, kelp is easily uprooted by the tug of the tides or winter storms.
Streichenberger, however, has experimented successfully with an inexpensive method using thin plastic tubes to secure the kelp in the sand. If the plan works, experts say, it could be a boon to aquaculture because it may prove that open-ocean farming is feasible.
"He is striking out into new territory," said Wheeler J. North, a marine biologist at the California Institute of Technology and one of the world's leading kelp specialists. "No one has really attempted to start a new kelp bed from the bare sand. Rodolphe's plan has real promise."
About 30 operators have been licensed by the state to raise oysters, scallops and shrimp on bay bottoms and offshore. But none match the scope of Streichenberger's blueprint.
"The other leases are geared to a single species or product and use conventional production modes," said Robson Collins, marine aquaculture coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Game. "But I'm not aware of an operation that is as comprehensive in developing kelp and shellfish simultaneously."
Most aquaculturists, like Dick Glenn, owner of Seafarms West near Carlsbad, have set up shop in sheltered waters of bays, coves and harbors.
But with the boom both here and abroad in the shellfish market, Glenn and others need more undersea acreage.
Glenn, a marine biologist, leases five acres in a lagoon from San Diego Gas & Electric Co. for his mussel and oyster farm, which he started three years ago.
"Everybody wants to eat healthy these days, so the demand for shellfish is growing," Glenn said. "There are potentially 15- to 20-million mouths in Southern California, but not enough calm waters to produce shellfish.
"The future is offshore," he said. "But nobody has come up with a way to inexpensively and efficiently farm the open ocean. Rodolphe, however, is on the track."
Streichenberger's idea works like this:
Divers using a pressurized water hose "blow open" 8- to 10-foot-deep holes every few feet along the ocean bottom. Then they bury lengths of plastic rope attached to thin, 10- to 15-foot-long plastic tubes. The settling sand holds the ropes in place, and the perforated tubes rise like corn in an Iowa field.
Strands of kelp then are wrapped around some of the tubes, giving the plant a solid base on which to grow. Mussels and scallops are attached to other tubes.
Within months, Streichenberger said, the kelp seedlings would sprout into a lush oasis. Under the right conditions--lots of sunshine filtering from the surface and waters rich in nutrients--kelp can grow as much as two feet a day.
Fish and other marine life, now driven to deeper, safer water by commercial fishing, boat traffic and offshore oil drilling, would be drawn back by the kelp. Within a year, the first crop of mussels and scallops in Streichenberger's plot could be harvested.
Streichenberger also envisions abalone and lobsters taking up residence in a series of low-standing, mushroom-shaped structures that would be placed beneath the kelp and shellfish columns. The crustaceans, he said, would thrive in the structure's metal webbing, safe from predators.
What has generated most of the interest in Streichenberger's project is its relatively cheap price tag.
Scientists have long known that marine life, from the simplest forms of algae to barnacles to fish, are drawn to any solid object, including kelp.
For nearly two decades, government and private groups have experimented with building artificial undersea reefs to enhance local sports fishing by sinking rocks, abandoned cars and even hundreds of toilets off the coast.
State officials now are spending more than $1 million a year to construct a string of man-made fishing reefs from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
The process, however, is expensive and time-consuming. Similar complaints have been raised about efforts to replant kelp beds damaged by storms along the coast.
For years, biologists have used steel chains to attach kelp to rocks or man-made reefs, biologist North said. It takes hundreds of feet of chain, he said, to plant even small patches of kelp, and the links rust and deteriorate quickly in the salt water.
But Streichenberger's use of relatively inexpensive plastics, which have proven durable in several test plots off Newport Beach, is a major step forward, North said.
One day, Streichenberger says, his technique could be automated. Robots controlled from the surface would move along a grid, planting the kelp and shellfish columns in tidy rows on the sea floor.
Streichenberger said he is not in this for money but to prove that he can create a thriving undersea ecosystem using only a strand of rope, a plastic tube and sand.
The oceans, he said, are one of the "world's great resources, yet man has abused it, overfished it and neglected its potential harvest. It is time we tap them."
He hit on the idea of growing kelp forests about six years ago while working on an island off the Brittany coast. Streichenberger, a private consultant at the time, was working for the government-financed French Institute for Sea Research and Marine Exploitation, experimenting with breeding and raising large shrimp in undersea cages.
When he approached the institute about kelp foresting along the French coast, he found only skeptics.
The idea "was not practical," said Philippe Baquotte, a biologist with the institute. "It was too futuristic."
Glenn, the Carlsbad aquaculturist who has worked with both Streichenberger and Baquotte, said he believes Streichenberger's proposal may have posed a threat to Baquotte's group, which also is looking at ways to farm the open ocean. "Streichenberger was working on a promising idea outside the French bureaucracy, and the government did not like it," Glenn said. "There was some politics involved."
Streichenberger sought permission from several French officials to test his idea, but each time his proposals were rejected. Part of the problem, North said, was Streichenberger's plan to plant quick-growing giant kelp, native to California waters but not found off France.
"The French are very skeptical," North said, "and they feared that an exotic species of kelp might turn out to be a pest and ruin their waters. They never gave him a chance."
Frustrated and discouraged, Streichenberger contacted North at the Kerckhoff Marine Laboratory in Corona del Mar. Most of what Streichenberger knew about kelp had come from reading North's research. The two corresponded for several months, and in 1986 Streichenberger moved to Orange County after North invited him to study at his lab.
"He is an individual that is very much driven by a need to prove his point," North said.
To finance the 10-acre test model off Balboa Pier, Streichenberger and several Newport Beach residents have formed a nonprofit company, Marine Forests. They have raised about $10,000 and have sent several hundred solicitations to foundations, corporations and individuals, said Newport Beach realtor Bill Crawford.
Crawford, who met Streichenberger about nine months ago, said he was taken by the Frenchman's desire to bring marine life back to shoreline waters. Crawford was an avid fisherman when he moved to Newport Beach in 1962. But local waters, he said, have been "fished out."
"One of the great dangers we have, not only locally but around the world, is the loss of our fish and marine life," Crawford said. "Hell, I've made all the money I need. I'm in this because we need the sea to feed this world. And if it isn't managed right, we are going to miss a golden opportunity."
Still, Crawford said, the cost of planting and maintaining marine forests would be recovered by the sale of shellfish.
If the Newport Beach model works, Streichenberger says, oil companies that are required by federal officials to offset damage caused by offshore drilling may be interested.
"I want Newport Beach to be known as the city where this idea was world-premiered," Streichenberger said. "If it goes, it may even become a tourist attraction."
The city of Newport Beach, which must approve activities within three miles of its coast, endorsed the plan without comment. And the San Pedro-based California Gill Netters Assn. said it welcomed any attempt to increase local fish populations.
Streichenberger hopes to start planting late this month to take advantage of the longer days and sunlight needed to speed kelp growth. But if he doesn't have the money, he will wait.
He said he will continue to take his tiny skiff offshore, strap on oxygen tanks and dive to the ocean floor to monitor the currents, the light conditions and shifting sands.
"The idea is sound," he said. "Now I just need a chance to seed it."