Why is the Ocean Off Orange County So Freaky Lately? Let Us Count the Ways

Dozens of sharks off Seal Beach. Red crabs all over Orange Coast shores. Tar balls from Long Beach to Newport Beach. Gamefish off Dana Point that you don't normally see until you're 200 miles farther south (and, hopefully, in a boat). Dogfish and catfish living together … MASS HYSTERIA!


OK, so that last one isn't real (that we know of … heh-heh), but the other examples of weird spit off the Orange County coast are very real, leading to fears that pollution, climate change and a little nino we like to call El Niño are creating a very freaky split sea soup. Just imagine when we add tons of brine from future desalination and human sewage from ya'll to the mix. Cup a Soup meet Cup a Poop.

Let's look at the latest indicators from out oceanic apocalypse:

Sharks: After a couple months of reports of sharks getting close to surfers and swimmers at Surfside, lifeguards launched a drone Monday and within 10 minutes received images of 10-12 great whites just hanging out. There have also been recent reports of multiple sharks off Huntington Beach to as far south as San Clemente.

Red crabs: Thousands of red tuna crabs washed ashore Sunday on beaches from Huntington Beach to San Clemente, nowhere more dramatically than on the docks and thin strips of sand ringing Balboa Island, which appeared to have been carpeted by Stanley Kubrick. A daredevil who took one home and boiled it up told us what little meat he could pull from the crabs was very salty. What scientists dubbed “The Blob” has washed up on our shores before but not for decades.

Gamefish: After years of lackluster recreational fishing that closed or threatened several associated businesses, fishermen noticed near summer's end two seasons ago that the water was not cooling down. The water got even warmer last year, leading to incredible fishing off Southern California and the belief that it was an El Niño year. Actually, a shift in the winter storm track by high pressure ridging in Alaska was the cause. But now it appears there is a strong warm water plume originating at the equator–hola, Niño!–and local fishermen are already plucking out species they never find this far north, including marlin just over the Orange County line (if an imaginary line extended over real water). Some are even predicting heavy fall/winter tropical El Niño rainfall that may turn these damn drought conditions around. (Fingers crossed.)

Tar balls: When tar balls marred the sands of Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach in late May … and then early this month in Long Beach … and then Seal Beach … and then Huntington Beach … and then Newport Beach, well, everyone just assumed it must be related to the May 19 spill in Santa Barbara County that released tens out thousands of gallons of oil into the Pacific. That has not been totally ruled out as the cause, but ask Mr. Google about “tar balls” with the names of local beaches and you'll discover that black goo has been doing a number to the bottoms of our Vans sandals for years and years here.

Cousins who visit from Arizona always take their little dog Gidget for a walk on our local beaches, but one false step into a tar ball in Newport Beach had them swearing off our shoreline a couple weeks ago. Now imagine living with The Blob? Rick Johnson, who lives on the Newport Beach Peninsula (or “The Pen,” as the cool kids call it) found his evening walks spoiled by the oily gunk.

“Now I know the shit sometimes makes its way onto the beach naturally or from drilling activity, but it has risen to a whole new level the past few days,” he told us. “Someone needs to come check this out to see if it can be linked to the Refugio Beach spill [near Santa Barbara]. My concern is that the stodgy, top-sider-wearing OC powers that be are simply going to dismiss even the possibility that the recent tar influx down here could maybe be related to big oil's shoddy oversight and caution-be-damned attitude. Let's face it–that's just how it works here in the OC, especially in Newport.”

Johnson said “the unmistakable stench of tar/oil is persistent and foul. I'm finding it hard to imagine that this is natural or an acceptable product of 'normal' day to day oil production. I've lived here for close to three years, and I haven't once noticed a day with this much tar/oil mierda washing ashore. It's fucked up.”

Time to call in the cavalry …


Meet the cavalry: He is mild-mannered Adam Martiny, director of the nearly new UCI OCEANS Initiative, a multi-disciplined effort–involving departments from Art to Anthropology and even those that do not begin with an “A”–that is taking a closer, educated look at the ocean and sea life off the Orange County coast.

“Being a professor I will be unable to give yes or no answers” to what is causing each local phenomenon ticked off earlier in this story, joked Martiny, who is an associate professor of Earth System Science & Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Well, he was sorta joking.

“Each individual point has an individual answer, so to speak,” he explained.

Take tar balls … please! There is still debate over their origin and it will take “very careful isotope analysis to pinpoint the source,” he said, explaining most tar balls do come from fossil fuel. “It could be natural or the spill or something third, it's hard to say,” Martiny confessed. “There is oil everywhere, both naturally and moved by people.”

The red crab invasion is easier to pinpoint given they've arrived here in the past when water temperatures are warm and, over the last three years, the water temperature around our coast has risen by about 3 degrees Celsius (or 6 degrees Fahrenheit). “A rise of 3 degrees Celsius is a lot,” said Martiny, who added there is much debate within the scientific community as to the cause, with an El Niño, climate change or the entrance to a longtime cycle cited as possible causes.

Scientists can agree on this: “The fact that temperatures have risen so much has caused a lot of changes in the water, in terms of algae and it also effects a lot of the animals and mammals,” said Martiny, pointing to the rash of sea lion strandings we have seen on our coast. “They are quite sensitive to temperatures and their food sources are sensitive to the temperatures also.

“… Everything in the ocean is attuned to the temperature. Most organisms don't regulate their own body temperatures, so they are very dependent on an exact temperature to live. When we see such a large increase in temperatures, it effects who will be [in our waters]. Some organisms move farther south and some move farther north.”

Asked if this is a good or bad thing, Martiny diplomatically answered, “Um, as scientists, we prefer not to put a value on it. I just think that when the ocean water temperature changes, everything else changes. Some like it as it used to be or others are fine with the changes. But sometimes it can happen too fast and cause disruptions.”

When it comes to the shark pods, experts believe they know the reason we are seeing them in our waters lately: That's where sharks live.

Given the current changes along our coast and those to come with the pushes for desalination, species protections and more mahi mahi, please, these are heady times for UCI OCEANS-short for Oceans, Changing Environments, Arts and Nearshore Societies.

“I'm really excited about contributing to the local understanding of oceans,” Martiny says. “We are trying to contribute to all the people with science. What are some of the long-term changes? What do they mean to our coastal cities? What about the sea level rise? We want to provide some science to guide the debates.”

Besides helping residents and leaders understand what is going on, Martiny is also “really excited” about collaborating with local organizations that have similar interests, including Caltech's Kerckhoff Marine Laboratory in Corona del Mar.

Perhaps UCI OCEANS will also have some meetings of the minds with Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based environmental nonprofit that just this week released its latest Beach Report Card that found Huntington Beach represented on the annual “Beach Bummers” list for the first time. That was due to the beach near Brookhurst ranking 10th on the list of those receiving the worst water-quality scores in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

On the bright side, Brookhurst was the only Beach Bummer in OC (way to go, Poche!), and four of our beaches made Heal the Bay's Honor Roll for being among the cleanest of the clean: The Wedge at Balboa; Treasure Island in Laguna Beach, Laguna Lido Apartments also in Laguna and Dana Point Harbor guest dock.

Overall, 95 percent of Orange County's 102 beaches received A grades from Heal the Bay, which also credits testers of our waters for having moved closer to spots of past pollution. That makes our high scores even more impressive.

When it comes to cause and effect, the group did note that improved water quality along the vast majority of California beaches can be credited to that damn drought, as little rainfall means not as much pollution in creeks, streams, rivers and storm drains is being flushed into the ocean. But Heal the Bay still called on government officials to explore ways to prevent storm-drain water from ever reaching the sea and develop projects to capture and reuse rainwater.

“In a time of severe drought, it's madness to send billions of gallons of runoff to pollute the sea when we could be capturing and cleansing that water for daily use,” said Sarah Sikich, vice president of Heal the Bay. (Hat tip to City News Service.) “The rains will return, and when they do, we need to capture this valuable resource to maximize our local water supplies and keep polluted water out of our ocean.”

Email: mc****@oc******.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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