Shrimp Pose Big Problem for LAX

Times Staff Writer

The scrubby, rock-filled drainage ditch at the end of a runway at Los Angeles International Airport might not look like much, but to scores of endangered shrimp, it’s home.

The little depression, surrounded by a chain-link fence with signs warning “Los Angeles World Airports -- Endangered Species -- Keep Out,” is part of a 108-acre area at LAX that federal officials want to designate as a preserve for the tiny creatures, which at the moment exist in egg form.

The proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announced earlier this year, took both Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, and the Federal Aviation Administration by surprise. The agencies have spent years trying to persuade federal wildlife officials to allow them to move the airport’s Riverside fairy shrimp population.


At many airports in California, including LAX, rare birds and animals have found refuge from relentless coastal development. But the desire to provide a haven for endangered species at these airports often conflicts with aircraft safety.

“The obligation of LAWA to provide safe and efficient air travel makes it physically and socially impossible to improve, expand or conserve habitat for Riverside fairy shrimp on the LAX airfield,” Jim Ritchie, a deputy executive director at the city’s airport agency, wrote to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

LAX officials argue that creating a preserve for the shrimp poses a risk because the crustaceans require standing water, which attracts birds and other wildlife. Birds, in turn, can be sucked into aircraft engines.

The airport logged 632 “wildlife strikes” -- in which a bird or other animal collided with an airplane -- from 1990 through 2004, FAA officials said. Those encounters caused severe damage to some planes and endangered people on board and on the ground.

In the most serious incident at LAX, a seagull was sucked into one of the four engines of a KLM jumbo jet as it was taking off in August 2000 with 449 people aboard. The collision threw the engine’s spinning turbine blades out of balance, sent chunks of metal flying and knocked off the tail cone.

The heavy tail cone landed on the beach a few feet away from a family. The plane made an emergency landing. No one was hurt.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials say they had no choice but to propose designating 5,800 acres in five Southern California counties as a preserve for the Riverside fairy shrimp. A federal judge ordered the action in response to a lawsuit that invalidated a previous critical habitat designation for the species that was finalized in 2001, said Jane Hendron, a service spokeswoman.

LAX is one of the last refuges for the declining population of the fragile crustacean, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Development, off-road vehicle use and livestock overgrazing have destroyed 90% of the shrimp’s habitat in Southern California.

“Conservation of a population of the Riverside fairy shrimp in the coastal region of Los Angeles County is essential to the conservation of the species,” federal wildlife officials wrote in a filing in the Federal Register. “This area is essential because it represents the remnants of a large historical vernal pool complex in the Los Angeles Basin. It is likely that this and other isolated populations of Riverside fairy shrimp have unique genetic differences that will contribute to the long-term survival of this species.”

The service agreed this spring to allow the city’s airport agency and the FAA to move a small number of shrimp to comply with mitigation measures required by LAX’s modernization plan. Federal wildlife officials have also agreed to allow airport administrators to use a portion of the proposed preserve for other activities as long as they protect 23 acres where the shrimp lie.

But aviation officials are still trying to persuade the service to allow them to transplant the entire population.

“We take their mission seriously,” said Ritchie, deputy executive director of the city’s airport agency. “That’s why we worked so hard over five years to present them with a wide variety of sites. We were prepared to, at a considerable cost, move them into any number of environments where they would thrive and present no hazard to the traveling public.”

Fish and Wildlife officials say they will continue to negotiate with the city’s airport agency and the FAA over the shrimp’s future.

Riverside fairy shrimp exist only in several areas in Southern California. The translucent creatures, which reach half an inch to an inch in length in adulthood, inhabit warm freshwater pools that form during the rainy season. After they reach maturity, the adult females lay eggs, which sink to the bottom of the pool. The eggs remain in the soil after the pool dries up and lie dormant until it fills with water again.

The shrimp at LAX are stuck in the cyst, or egg, state and have not hatched for years. That is because the pools at LAX are too shallow and the water chemistry is off, aviation officials say, adding that too few eggs exist at the airport to allow the species to flourish.

No one knew Riverside fairy shrimp existed at LAX until biologists started compiling a list of species at the airport in 1998 to be included in environmental studies for airport modernization plans.

Those studies, conducted during one of the wettest years in more than a century, found shrimp eggs in nine locations, including in tire ruts, along the shoulders of access roads, in a hazardous materials containment pond and in a flood basin.

But only a small percentage of the eggs found at LAX were viable in a lab -- where it took two tries to hatch the crustaceans, said Andrew B. Huang, an environmental supervisor at the city’s airport agency.

Shrimp eggs lie close to the surface at the nine sites, several of which are surrounded by chain-link fences and filled with grasses that officials say attract insects, which attract rodents, which attract birds of prey. Raptors have been responsible for many bird strikes at LAX.

LAX isn’t the only airport struggling with accommodating endangered species. At San Diego International Airport, officials have worked for a dozen years to protect the endangered California least tern, which nests each year between the taxiways at the seaside facility. But because of its behavior and small size, the bird does not present a significant risk to aircraft.

At Ventura County’s Point Mugu Naval Air Reserve base, which is built on wetlands where five endangered bird species live, officials installed a high-tech radar system to keep track of the fowl. Most of them are beach birds that do not present a significant risk to aircraft.

At LAX, officials are already administering a 200-acre preserve for the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly on dunes at the airport’s western edge. The butterfly has flourished there, growing from 500 individuals to 100,000 in 15 years. But butterflies do not present a threat to aircraft operations, officials say. Birds don’t eat them; spiders do.

Federal wildlife officials are not required to issue a final ruling on the Riverside fairy shrimp habitat proposal until next spring. In the meantime, airport officials are pulling together documents and completing studies they hope will persuade the service to allow them to move the shrimp.

But biologists caution that there isn’t enough scientific data to show that the shrimp populations would thrive elsewhere.

Moving the creatures needs more study, said Marie A. Simovich, an invertebrate biologist at the University of San Diego. “You can’t just dig a hole anywhere and throw dirt into it.”