He Shelves Sea Shells By the Seashore

Photo by Jack GouldBack in the 20th century, when the OC Weeklywas starting up, one of the first people we interviewed was marine biologist Dennis Kelly, who teaches at Orange Coast College and has been active in protecting our coastal waters for decades. It's possible there are better-informed or -involved scientists around, but I like going to Kelly because he's the kind of guy who will punctuate a Mexican lunch of shellfish with an enthusiastic description of shellfish toxins.

“This stuff was probably grown on a farm,” Kelly said, pointing at our plates. “I wouldn't eat any shellfish out of Newport Harbor under any circumstances. All that dog waste the humans are too lazy to pick up ends up in the harbor, where the fecal coloform levels can spike really high in a day or so. The shellfish are going to filter that out of the water, so you're basically eating dog crap. Then some of the red-tide blooms in summer are dangerous. You're playing Russian roulette. There's paralytic shellfish poisoning. There's amnesiac shellfish poisoning, where you lose your memory and never get it back, like the guy in Memento. There's another that sends you into a coma. There's diarrheic shellfish poisoning where you shit yourself to death. In any of our river mouths, any of the bays, it's not safe to eat the local shellfish.”

The guy is a walking appetite suppressant. OCC students recently awarded Kelly their “Friends of the Student” award, and I suspect it was for the part his lectures play in furthering their anorexia.

I contacted Kelly this time to get his take on the Marine Studies Center that's being built on Upper Newport Bay's Shellmaker Island, but I was equally curious to hear his latest tales of briny woe.

My initial thought on the pending 20,000-square-foot center was “screw this.” When there is so little nature left, putting a building atop some of it in the name of studying it didn't make sense to me. There have been too many other encroachments in recent years—the Castaways and Harbor Cove housing tracts, that damned Mercedes dealership and its neighboring condos—and it's a travesty to me that still more acres were eaten up by the Peter & Mary Muth Interpretive Center at the bay's northwest corner.

The Interpretive Center is a good-looking building, but we have a surfeit of buildings and only one Back Bay. Add the center's parking lots, light poles, fences, cleared trails, unnatural rock circles, big waste-management dumpster, and the interpretation kids probably walk away with is that nature sucks until humans knock it into shape.

But Kelly is strongly behind the science center project. He pointed out that Shellmaker Island isn't exactly raw nature to begin with, having been decimated by Shellmaker Inc., which for decades had a factory there processing shells into chicken meal (for stronger beaks and shells, chickadees).

“If we could take back all the bay, great. But right across from Shellmaker you've got huge houses on artificial islands built by the Irvine Co., and we're never, ever going to have that bit of nature back,” Kelly said. “Meanwhile, I'd argue that this tiny bit of land and the science center is an invaluable resource. A boat has to have an anchor, and to me, this little piece is the anchor for the whole bay to keep it all there.

“You can take kids on all the nature walks you want, and they could really give a rat's ass. But when you get them doing science, going in with plankton nets and mud samplers, and they see the animals that live in the mud and touch the baby halibut that are starting to come back, and you tell them, 'This little halibut isn't going to live unless you get involved,' then they start to care. I've been doing that for years, and having the science center there is going to make it much more effective.”

I'll gladly cede that point to Kelly, since he's out in the thick of it and my own environmental activity is often limited to yelling at the president when he's on my TV.

While the bay will never again be what it once was, Kelly says it's better now than it has been. “The halibut coming back is a good sign, as are the white sea bass that are being caught for the first time in 25 years. But it's a constant battle. No one has even studied the effect of the jet fuel spewed on the bay by the hundred-plus planes going overhead every day. And people dump toxins all the time into tributaries leading into the bay. Just getting the Department of Fish and Game to put enough personnel in the bay to keep an eye on things is a problem.”

Another problem is silt, caused in part by runoff from construction. There are sediment traps upstream, but they fill up and stop functioning. So, though the bay was dredged just a few years ago, it's ripe for another $5 million dredge job. The discredited Irvine Ranch Water District's plan to divert wastewater into the bay would have diluted the silt, but when they finally admitted the nitrate levels of their water, activists were able to shoot down the plan.

Our coastal waters provide further examples of small victories and inexorable decline. Kelly is cheered that the levels of heavy metals and polychlorinated hydrocarbons—inorganic chemicals such as DDT—have been declining in the local sea life.

“I had a program set up for a while where I'd collect dead sea lions and dolphins that washed up on the beach and get tests done on them. That's when we found out, about 15 years ago, that the sea life off this coast was so polluted that individual dolphins qualified as toxic waste. You'd be violating the law if you buried them.” That's no longer true.

That's the plus side. The minus:

“All the fisheries are gone. The abalone are gone. The lobster population is in real trouble. The natural kelp beds are gone. The only balanced indigenous tide pools remaining are on tiny strips of private coast. We're only starting to study the effect of the air pollution that settles on the ocean's microlayer surface, where a lot of the larval fish live. At full-tilt, the Huntington Beach power plants will be sucking in 160 million gallons of water per day and heating it up 15 degrees, killing 100 percent of the plankton that goes through it. And I don't entirely trust the sanitation district to scrutinize itself in its $4.1 million study of whether it's their waste fouling the waters, which, of course, will be an even bigger problem if it's the power station that's sucking it into shore.

“Meanwhile, the Irvine Co. is doing a shameful job above Crystal Cove. They announced they were using 'state-of-the-art' methods to divert their construction-site runoff away from the ocean. Right. That's why last year, you could see a two-mile plume of silt flowing out from the cove. Crystal Cove is the last place here where dolphins can birth their young, and with people from the 6,000 homes the Irvine Co. is building splashing around in the cove, the dolphins are going to abort their babies and not come back.”

Hopeless? No, just vexing and exhausting. “It requires eternal vigilance. It isn't fun going to these interminable meetings. But people who think it's useless need to look at what a few people have accomplished. There's Frank and Fran Robinson, who took on the Irvine Co.'s plans for Upper Newport Bay three decades ago, and thanks to them, it's an ecological preserve forever now. John Cunningham, a lifeguard, helped start Friends of the Sea Lion. The sea lions they doctor have an 85 percent chance of survival compared to the zero percent they had before. There's Jack Skinner, a retired physician who took on the health department when they insisted they were doing enough bacteria testing at our beaches. He collected his own samples, proved them wrong and got them to do a better job. There's Laura Davick and the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove, and there's Garry Brown and Randy Seaton of Orange County CoastKeeper, who, though they're a new group, have had a great impact. They're all just individuals who aren't doing any more than anyone else is able to do. The only difference is that they're doing it.”

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