Photo courtesy Benjamin Kay
MARINA DEL REY — A large-scale fish kill in Marina del Rey is worrying ocean experts but local educators said the event is a chance to motivate residents to become involved in environmental causes.
Thousands of dead fish were killed in Marina del Rey on May 18 in what officials are saying was a perfect storm of factors. Experts said the large school of fish happened to be in the worst place at the worst time due to a combination of natural and man-made factors.
Dana Roeber Murray, a marine and costal scientist at Heal the Bay said harbors and marinas are actually bad environments for most marine life. The presence of pollutants from boats, runoff from inland streams, storm drain outlets and poor water circulation can all contribute to a low water quality.
It’s also possible that the area had higher than normal levels of algae, due to nutrient runoff, which would have created oxygen hungry bacteria in the area.
In such an environment, animals are less able to handle harsh conditions and the situation over the weekend was particularly bad.
The week-long heat wave likely raised the temperature of the water and warm water holds less oxygen than cool water. Animals in the marina would have also had to contend with a sharp drop in water levels due to strong tides caused by the full moon.
The large school of fish would have found its already low oxygen environment suddenly much smaller with even less available oxygen. The sheer size of the school would have used much of what little oxygen was left, creating a mini-dead zone in the marina that killed not only the migratory fish, but everything that happened to be in that section.
Benjamin Kay, a marine biologist and science instructor with Santa Monica High School and Santa Monica College was in the marina with several students early Sunday morning as part of an educational outreach effort organized by the nonprofit, Los Angeles Waterkeeper. Kay said his students were among the first people to report the dead fish and he said the students were deeply affected by the situation.
“We were just held spellbound by the unsightly view and captivated by the shock factor of this massive fish kill,” he said.
Kay said official estimates were suggesting more than 70,000 individual fish may have died but that he thought the number was likely higher because the official count was limited to the fish being removed from the surface of the water and his students saw many more dead fish at the bottom.
“They were overcome by shock and expressed how crazy, atrocious, it was,” he said. “They said ‘how can we let this happen?’”
Kay said he is a strong believer in experiential learning and that while no-one wants to encounter a situation like that, it was a powerful learning experience that put some of his lessons into context.
“We’ve talked about this in class, we did a mini-unit on ocean dead zones but this takes a text book page and brings that page to life, there’s nothing like learning out in nature, that’s experiential learning, and that’s always superior or more meaningful than a textbook curriculum that teaches the same things,” he said. “I’m a fan of students getting outside the class and into nature. You can see the human impacts in the flesh, you can’t nowadays, say an incident like Marina del Rey is truly a natural process.”
Kay and Murray both said climate change is creating more extreme conditions in the oceans.
“We have units that are dedicated to the impacts of humans on oceanic life and with these massive fish kills a lot are not just connected to a weather pattern that heated up the water and used up the oxygen,” said Kay.
Murray said residents who are motivated to get involved should be concerned about coastal development and support restoration projects that include rebuilding dunes or wetlands.
She said even a small increase in water levels could be a problem when combined with other factors.
“With climate change, sea levels will rise and there will be flooding,” she said. “In places like Marina Del Rey and Venice, some of those areas are at higher risk of flooding when you couple that with high tides and tack on storm surges.”
Brian Meux, a Marine Programs manager with Los Angeles Waterkeeper said educating the public on marine issues could be difficult as it’s often hard to perceive the impacts of long-term problems like over fishing or pollution. He said incidents like a fish-kill are never good, but they can be used as powerful motivators. “It’s actually pretty rare where you can get these acute devastation impacts on such a large scale in such a short period,” he said.
Kay and his students were participating in one of the Waterkeeper’s regular trips to monitor the newly established Marine Protection Areas in the Santa Monica Bay. The locally protected areas include parts of the ocean near Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Catalina Island. The areas are part of a chain of protected zones that run the length of California.
Meaux said there are restrictions in the zones that restrict human activity and that his organization offers free public tours of the zones to help residents learn about ocean health.
“We have a program to try to engage the local communities with these marine protected areas … the value of working with volunteers is teaching folks about the ocean first hand,” he said. “The best way to teach about ecological habitats is to bring them to that habitat.”
Murray said it’s important to bring as many people as possible to the ocean as direct contact is an important way people develop a desire to protect the environment.
“I think most people learn by doing, so having hands on experience whether they are actually contributing to science or a beach clean up, they are likely to remember it more,” she said. “Another thing is volunteer work, once they’ve tried it, people get used to the feeling of giving back and it feels good.”
She said a reduction in human related factors will make help marine live survive future incidents.
“If we can manage some of the human stressors on the marine environment, the marine wildlife will be likely to be more resilient,” she said.