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Good Tidings at Port

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

“After a while, the chemical burns disappeared and, to our amazement, we started getting croakers with monstrous holes in their sides and fins rotting off. Later, for a short period, we caught croaker with two heads and tails between their eyes.”

These days, the croaker he catches appear normal but he warns they are “loaded with PCBs and DDT.”

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Those chemicals, used in transformers and as a pesticide, have been outlawed and the impact of that ban--along with cleaner water generally--is readily apparent to McDonough. To prove the point, he skippered a fishing boat through Fish Harbor’s narrow entrance on a recent weekday and dropped a fine net into the water. A few minutes later, he pulled it up and poured the contents into a small glass jar.

“When I did this 12 years go, we got zip,” he said.

Not anymore. The jar was filled with thousands of frenzied greenish-red plankton, the critical first rung of the ocean food chain.

“Life!” McDonough said, holding the jar above his head triumphantly.

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Later, after docking at San Pedro’s 22nd Street landing, he grabbed a pole and began nudging the rocks along the water’s edge.

“See that red bat star over there? Haven’t seen them in years,” he said. “There’s an octopus living inside that pipe. Those rocks are covered with Kellet’s whelk. The green balls you see on the ropes are a form of algae that require clean water to survive.”

Michael Schaadt, exhibits director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, gets closer still to harbor wildlife.

The lean and soft-spoken marine biologist has made a daily lunch hour ritual of swimming out to garibaldi nests he has discovered in submerged crevices on both sides of the breakwater.

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It took Schaadt about 15 minutes to reach a nesting site he has been monitoring for five years. After stopping briefly to catch his breath in a kelp bed in 12 feet of water, he plunged down to where a pair of softball-sized garibaldi--a protected species--were guarding orange eggs laid on a red patch of algae.

Schaadt, who has a state permit to collect garibaldi eggs and raise the fry, used a small comb to tease out about 700 eggs and carefully deposited them in a small plastic bag.

About 40 seconds later, he surfaced near a floating mound of empty salsa containers and a dead sea gull.

“If the harbor is becoming clean and hospitable for garibaldi,” he said, “that’s a positive trend for everything else, from mussels to seabirds.”

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The harbor started getting cleaner almost immediately after passage of the federal Clean Water Act and the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act in 1972. About that time, the state Regional Water Quality Control Board began tightening permits for the discharge of water pollutants.

A few years later, waste water from San Pedro seafood processors was diverted to the Terminal Island sewage treatment plant.

By the mid-1980s, water clarity had improved nearly 100% and levels of dissolved oxygen had soared from almost zero in some places to a nearly normal 6.8 milligrams per liter.

“There are nowhere near the contaminants that used to end up in the ports,” said Dennis Dickerson, executive officer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles. “Life has followed the cleaner water, attaching itself and holding on anywhere it can.”

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Indeed, the “dead zones” found in some dead-end channels and cannery areas have come back to life.

It wasn’t just the return of oxygen that helped. Wildlife rushed into artificial habitats created either by accident or design. In downtown Long Beach, a former six-acre parking lot was ripped out and transformed into an estuary now crawling with horned snails and shorebirds.

The sunbaked northwestern edge of Pier 400, the world’s largest container terminal, was left vacant for the terns who flock there by the thousands.

Against a backdrop of bridges and cranes rearing skyward, the nesting area, which is off-limits to the public, is strewn with tiny speckled tern eggs--their locations marked by 6-inch wooden stakes to ensure that researchers do not step on them.

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On all sides, the air is filled with the raucous calls of adult terns bringing fish to their demanding chicks. Occasionally, crushes of fledglings stampede across the sandy plain, raising clouds of dust like miniature buffalo.

The resurgence of harbor life is not unique to Los Angeles and Long Beach. Incremental recoveries have been occurring in industrial ports from Humboldt Bay to San Diego, said Eric Larson, bays and estuaries coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Even so, “there’s still a lot of work to do,” Larson said. “Increased species diversity and improved water quality are benefits, but that doesn’t mean all our questions are answered or our problems solved.”

For example, cleaner water in West Coast ports has also enabled invasive exotic species to gain footholds. A species of pale yellow oyster proliferating across the Los Angeles port is strange and beautiful, but it doesn’t belong there.

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Green’s biological survey suggests that up to 15% of the invertebrate species in the harbor may be nonnative.

Then there is the No. 1 source of coastal water pollution: urban runoff, which is almost always toxic to marine life and liable to sicken swimmers.

The Clean Water Act requires cities to take steps to clean up the mess that washes down their storm drains.

Many cities, however, say it would be too expensive to comply with all provisions of the law.

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As the battle over that law intensifies, Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation, a grass-roots conservation group, said, “It’s important to recognize that activists who’ve been fighting for clean water for 30 to 40 years have really accomplished something in the ports.

“It’s an incentive for the rest of us to work equally hard,” said Nelsen, 32. “When I’m 65, it will be even better.”

But with the clean water comes persistent reminders of industry and human carelessness. Heaps of trash piled up inside the Catalina Expressway terminal in downtown Long Beach one recent afternoon, but that didn’t seem to bother a group of young men. They needed no license to fish off a public pier, but they had to observe the bag limits on harbors.

In less than an hour, they filled their buckets with 27 fish, quite a bounty but still within their limits. They had mostly white croaker, along with shark, calico bass, striped sand bass and mackerel.

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“The fishing’s great,” one of them said.


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