In Newport Harbor, Capt. Bill Scott follows a line of disappointed fishermen off his boat, TheReveille. It's a short line: because of the red tide, he's getting skunked.
"Fish don't bite in this dirty red tide, and I'm losing money because of it," says Scott. "It's been like this for months: one good week, then three weeks of red tide. Business is dumping fast."
Red tide is no tide at all. It's caused by microscopic algae that bloom near the coast during the summer. The tide isn't harmful to people, but it sends them—and fish—running. Most swimmers stay out of the water; fishermen are forced farther out to sea in search of game. "We were three miles off Corona del Mar and we caught nothing," says Scott.
When the phytoplankton die—they live just 36 hours—they produce a smell like death and a seasonal buffet for bottom dwellers and grazers.
But this year's red tide is stubborn. It started in mid-February and runs along most of the Southern California coast. Scientists say it's easily the biggest in 12 years.
"We simply don't know what's going on," says Dr. Peter Franks of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla.
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But Franks and others speculate the unprecedented red tide was created right in your front yard. "In many areas, fertilization runoff contributes to the formation of these algae blooms," he says. One particularly ferocious rainy season, like this year's, and fertilizers on suburban lawns, nurseries, golf courses and parks end up in the ocean.
Algae, it turns out, love fertilizer. When they die in their billions, the algae sink—and stink. That's them you're smelling on PCH.
Not everybody hates the red tide. Surfers in particular welcome its fetid arrival. "It keeps the kooks out of the water," says a surfer who identified himself as Dane.
"During the day, even in good weather, nobody wants to go in the water except for us surfers," Mike Barnes said while looking out over Newport Peninsula's Wedge. "The stench is pretty beat, though, and you definitely don't want that shit in your mouth."