Alien and invasive algae threatened local marine life along the Newport Beach coast for months before government officials removed it.
Municipal, state and federal authorities began removing the algae just two weeks ago after a local diver first discovered the algae invading local waters in March.
In May, the city of Newport Beach declared a state of emergency regarding potential algae damage to coastal habitat.
It only took a few days to eliminate the pest species.
But it can take months, or even years, to ensure that the algae – known scientifically as Caulerpa Prolifera – and its threat to local ecosystems are completely gone, officials said last Tuesday, as the area is always under close surveillance.
In turn, Newport Beach City Council members voted at last week’s meeting to maintain the algae emergency.
Caulerps of other types have already threatened marine life along the California coast.
So a mix of different local, state, and federal agencies – grouped under the Southern California Caulerpa Action Team – have taken the lead in trying to resolve the issue in Newport.
The team spent months deliberating, raising funds and studying the area, before the algae clean-up process began on July 7 at a small public beach called China Cove. There were several Caulerpa plots in the harbor that totaled about 1,000 square feet, according to biologist Robert Mooney of Marine Taxonomic Services who worked on the project.
It took a little longer than the expected 4-5 days to remove the algae, but the signs and equipment disappear when the project is complete, according to Chris Miller, Port Resources Manager for Newport Beach.
However, the algae has not been completely eradicated.
“There will definitely be follow-up work… We won’t be able to say that this has been eradicated for a very long time after we’ve probed and probed and probed,” Miller said.
This invasive species that they eliminate can spread from tiny fragments and can take years to get rid of completely. Although the algae is considered eliminated, the port will need to be tested for years to make sure the algae does not come back, Mooney said.
Caulerpa prolifera is a species native to Florida and other tropical regions. It is the first time that it is cited in California.
A related species, however, was found in San Diego and Huntington Beach in 2000. Dubbed “killer algae,” the threat sparked serious and strategic eradication plans. It took six years and $ 7 million. The Newport Beach infestation was on a smaller scale, Mooney said. Once these projects were completed, critical coastal plants and habitats were restored.
When the risk modeling for the Caulerpa invasions was carried out in 2006, China Cove ranked in the highest risk category, according to the California Fish and Wildlife website.
Divers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife swam on the seabed to assess the extent of the outbreak in April. Bathing buoys and signs have been installed near the beach entrances to keep people away.
The removal process began slowly, but biologists were able to remove the algae without a big hiccup, Miller said. The machines they used sucked seawater into containers to filter out algae before returning the clean water to the ocean.
The biologists and divers were hired by the California State Water Resources Control Board, which provided about $ 300,000 for the removal and some surveys, Miller said.
Coincidentally, around the same time the Caulerpa was discovered, a $ 4 million dredging project by the US Army Corps of Engineers was to begin at the entrance to the harbor where the algae was found.
Marine biologists conducted investigations and confirmed that there was no Caulerpa there, which allowed the dredging project to continue.
Caulerpa can be harmful because it grows quickly, to the detriment of algae and native seagrass. It can take over and smother critical eelgrass beds, which serve a variety of important functions, such as providing food, oxygen and shelter to marine animals; filter pollution; and reducing coastal erosion, according to an article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Bureau of Fisheries.
Some types of Caulerpa secrete a toxin that shellfish, herbivorous fish, and sea urchins avoid.
In tropical waters, herbivores are immune to these toxic compounds, but there are no known predators on the California coast.
Although potentially dangerous for non-native marine ecosystems, there is no danger to humans.
Still, the public are advised to avoid contact with algae as they can spread from tiny fragments, according to a species profile compiled by the California Fish and Wildlife.
The Caulerpa are believed to have invaded Newport Harbor thanks to someone cleaning their aquarium.
“Coming from an aquarium is very plausible and appears to be the source, although it’s impossible to tell with 100% confidence,” Miller said.
Miller says he won’t ask for another extension to maintain a state of emergency in Newport Beach after the 60 days are over. The current extension was approved out of caution.
The Department of Fisheries and Wildlife is asking people to report online if they have seen the invasive algae.
Over the next several months, the Caulerpa Action Team in Southern California will continue to study the Port of Newport and surrounding areas.
“A fragment of one centimeter can develop and we know that the algae had already fragmented considerably since we looked at it. So we picked up a lot of small shards during this whole effort. It’s going to be very important to keep looking to move forward, ”said Mooney.