A failed and controversial experiment in aquaculture off the Newport Beach coast is being dismantled after sitting below the surface for nearly 30 years.
An artificial reef of tires, plastic jugs and PVC pipes, envisioned by its builder as an oasis of kelp and mussels but described now as little more than a debris field, is being removed by a cleanup crew from the Wildlife Health Center School at UC Davis with funding through the California Coastal Commission.
The four-member crew of divers, which has been at work the past week on a 40-foot commercial urchin fishing boat named Triton, pulls out of Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor early each day to hit the reef by about 9 a.m. It’s a couple of hundred yards offshore, near the Wedge surf spot, and about 30 to 35 feet below the teal surface.
“It’s about time this was cleaned up. Dumping plastic and other trash into our oceans is not the way to restore the marine ecosystem,” Coastal Commission Chairwoman Dayna Bochco said in a statement Wednesday.
Glen Dexter, Triton’s captain, usually retrieves lost fishing nets and other detritus as part of the UC Davis-affiliated California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, which targets debris that can pose a threat to marine health.
The tire reef is different from the usual flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict.
“It just looks like a pile of trash,” he said. “It’s got some life around it, but not like a regular rock reef would.”
The late Rodolphe Streichenberger, president of the now-defunct Marine Forests Society, sunk the reef in 1988 to establish a kelp forest, grow mussels for commercial harvest and attract hundreds of species of fish in what he saw as an underwater desert. Without the necessary state permits, he arranged 1,500 tires, 2,000 plastic jugs and 100 upright 20-foot PVC pipes over 10 acres of ocean floor.
State scientists were skeptical or outright disapproving. They said the tires contained toxins, the material wasn’t dense enough to anchor to the ocean floor and the accompanying netting and ropes could trap marine animals, according to the Coastal Commission.
In 1997, the commission denied Streichenberger a retroactive permit and ordered him to remove the reef. In 2000, he sued, challenging the commission’s authority to require permits or to take enforcement action. The California Supreme Court upheld the agency’s authority.
Streichenberger died in 2006.
“It’s hard to believe there was a time when someone thought this was a good idea,” Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth said in a statement this week. “We now know that plastic is poison in the ocean, polluting every level of the food chain.”
Divers from the commission and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife who explored the reef over the years found the kind of small invertebrates typically found on boat bottoms, but no kelp and only a few fish. But with no mechanism to collect financial penalties, cleanup efforts stalled.
The commission found funding earlier this year when it negotiated mitigation fees as part of a permit to install underwater fiber optic cables off Hermosa Beach. The cost of the cleanup is unclear.
Cleanup workers pile about 100 tires at a time onto the Triton’s deck before returning to Long Beach, where a specialized tire recycler waits at the port to haul away the day’s load. The crew expects to recover about 1,000 of the 1,500 tires.
The pipes and other pieces are being left behind.
Dexter says the work is challenging.
With strong swells this week, visibility has been limited. The tires were strung like garland on rope that must be snipped to bring the tires to the surface. Some of the tires are almost completely sunken in the sand. Before being taken by the recycler, they have to be cleaned of muck and copious amounts of long-vacant clam shells stuck to the inner lining.
“We haven’t seen a live clam yet and we’ve seen thousands of clam shells,” Dexter said. The animals seem to get trapped inside the tires and die, he said.