Thoughts on Redondo Beach fish kill

Photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh

A mass die off of sardines at King Harbor Marina in Redondo Beach is making headlines across the country. But what happened? The answer seems to depend on who you talk to.

Some news reports suggest that high winds blew the massive school of sardines into King Harbor. Several local marine biologists I’ve spoken to think that idea doesn’t make sense because fish can swim in wind-blown water, they live in the ocean after all and deal with a wide variety of atmospheric shifts influencing ocean conditions.

Other stories suggest that the sardines intentionally sought shelter in the marina to avoid rough ocean conditions. The Los Angeles Times article published today also discussed the possibility that the sardines were fleeing predators and their escape route drove them to the harbor. We will probably never know the “why” behind the sardines arrival, but something inspired or forced the sardines into the protected harbor area where they gasped their last breath.

Once in King Harbor Marina their fate was sealed for one simple reason: not enough oxygen.

The next question everyone asks is: Was this a natural disaster? The answer to that question also seems to depend on who you talk to.

I recently attended a talk on the Gulf oil spill by Dr. Sean Anderson and one of his slides stated: “We no longer have ‘natural’ disasters.” Now that humans dominate, he feels that we are usually involved somehow, either we cause the disaster as in the case of the Gulf oil spill or we manage to exacerbate the devastation through things we’ve constructed, polluted or already damaged. I think this idea applies to the King Harbor Marina fish die off.

While fish die offs do occur in nature, a marina is not natural. This is a man-made creation, usually involving the construction of a breakwall to prevent waves from destroying boats. The breakwall also prevents the natural flow of ocean water from taking place, no waves means no natural cleansing action and no new oxygen. If you take a close look at harbor water, it’s pretty easy to tell it’s disgusting. That is one place I wouldn’t go swimming.

Preliminary testing indicates that there wasn’t a chemical spill or some other heavy dose of human pollutant detected in the water. However, compared to the open ocean, the harbor is an enclosed space with limited resources. That said, I have seen fish swimming in harbors and doing okay. But to have so many sardines in such a small space wasn’t a good combination. They swam in, sucked in every last bit of oxygen and without access to more, kicked the bucket. Measurements indicate that oxygen levels in the water were so low sustaining life wasn’t possible.

Would the fish have died if the harbor wasn’t there? I don’t know. Maybe? Maybe not? But I do believe we humans played a role somehow, we are the new natural disaster.

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