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Giant sea bass survive and thrive off Corona del Mar, but junk is putting them in jeopardy



Look out toward the ocean at Corona del Mar in Newport Beach and you’ll see a pristine stretch of coast.

But it’s a different story underwater, where heaps of debris threaten a delicate species that considers this a safe haven in which to grow.

During an underwater clean-up Sunday, Nov. 10, volunteers dug up and lifted out heavy loads of junk from below the water’s surface. It was an all-day effort organized by the Ocean Defenders Alliance and one Newport Beach biologist dedicated to helping baby giant sea bass have a place to prosper.

“We got quite a bit of stuff,” said Mike Couffer, who spearheaded the project alongside divers who traveled from San Pedro aboard the 55-foot boat LegaSea.

There were three large lobster pots, and another buried so deep that Couffer could only cut the top off with bolt cutters. A stainless steel boat railing, two anchors and two hoop nets also were found among the debris.

“For decades, stuff has been accumulating there. Some of it gets buried and a storm will uncover it. The sand is constantly shifting. You will probably never get it all, there’s still material buried out there,” said Couffer, a biologist who has dedicated his life to surveying the state’s coast for rare, threatened and endangered wildlife.

“We want to go out there again, eventually, and make another run at it,” he said. “I was really happy about the amount of stuff we pulled out of there. Everyone worked really hard.”

For Couffer, the goal is not only to get the trash out of the ocean, but to protect the habitat for the baby giant sea bass. The Corona del Mar location is one of just a few nursery sites for the species that is drawn to sandy-bottom areas that are near deeper offshore canyons.

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Other nursery sites in Southern California include Veterans Park in Redondo Beach, Newport Pier, and La Jolla Shores in San Diego. There might also be one in Mexico, Couffer said.

Adult giant sea bass are the largest bony fish inhabiting California’s nearshore waters, growing to almost nine feet and more than 800 pounds. They live from Humboldt Bay, in Northern California, down to Mexico.

The population dwindled in the early 1900s due to overfishing and they were listed internationally as a critically endangered species. Restrictions were placed on intentional capture or harm by California state law, Couffer said.

The Corona del Mar area tucked away near the harbor entrance is appealing for the giant sea bass because food — tiny shrimp — for the babies is plentiful and it is void of large predator fish because there are no large rocks, reefs or other natural structures to attract them.

But those big boat parts, lobster traps and other junk become underwater structures where those bigger fish hang out, putting the baby giant sea bass in jeopardy.

“It’s important for this one fish — it’s important for them to have a clear, open bottom, a big clear area where they can grow up for a couple of months without predators,” Couffer said. “While they are little tiny babies, they are very vulnerable to predators … if a predator sees one, they will eat it.”

This stretch of beach is especially susceptible to trash because of all the activity at nearby Newport Harbor, which has been used for boating activities for the last century.

“Ever since then, stuff has been accumulating,” the biologist said. “So the baby giant sea bass, when they get a little bit older, they have to negotiate this gauntlet of objects that hold predator fish.”

Cleaning the nursery site gives the baby giant sea bass a chance to survive and thrive.

“It definitely gives these baby fish a chance on life that they might not have otherwise had,” Couffer said. “It is unknown how many baby giant sea bass are eaten and how many survive, but removal of the man-made, predator-holding structures and returning the bottom to a more natural state of bare sand would certainly benefit this important giant sea bass nursery site.”

For the nonprofit that joined the effort, the underwater excursion was part of its mission. The Ocean Defenders Alliance was founded in 2000, with specially trained divers who use their expertise in underwater debris and net removal under the ocean’s surface.

“Every little bit we can do makes a difference, so it’s awesome,” said Rex Levi, the Ocean Defenders Alliance boat captain. “It was a great day out there.”

Source: Orange County Register

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