NEWPORT BEACH, California. – For the first time, scientists say they have seen a species of bright green algae growing in waters outside California – and they hope it is the last.
Invasive algae can transcend the environment and displace critical food sources for ocean animals off the coast of Southern California. A team Wednesday began removing the fast-growing piece of algae known as caulerpa proliferators from the harbor at Newport Beach, sucking it through a pipe and filtering out ocean water.
The process will take four or five days and will take much longer until scientists can determine that the algae are gone for good. So far, it has been confined to an area of nearly 1,000 square feet (90 square feet) not far from a small but well-known beach. But small fibers can easily break down and get caught elsewhere.
“We’re at a point here where we have a shot to get rid of it,” said Robert Mooney, a biologist with the Marine Taxonomic Services who oversees a large pump that a team of three divers use to remove algae. “We do not have the luxury of waiting to see what happens.”
The species discovery late last year and confirmation this spring prompted federal, state and local officials to act. They are eager to prevent its spread, noting that algae have invaded other habitats such as the Suez Canal. It was essential to act quickly, they said, because swimmers and boatmen moving through the water could contribute to the spread of algae.
California faced a similar problem two years ago when an invasive bound algae was discovered off the coasts of Huntington Beach and Carlsbad. It cost $ 7 million to eradicate and urge the state to stop selling caulerpa taxifolia and other algae.
This species – known as “killer algae” – has caused widespread problems in the Mediterranean. It is not edible by many fish and invertebrates and can displace plants that are, Mooney said.
“It looks like someone took an AstroTurf roll and stretched it across the sea floor,” said Christopher Potter of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Invasive algae recently identified in Newport Beach are related but not banned in California. It is used in some saltwater aquariums and scientists think it is likely to explode in the harbor when someone washes a fish tank, possibly in a storm drain.
“It’s more than likely that the source is an aquarium release,” said Keith Merkel of Merkel & Associates, biological consultant on the project. “It can spread from very small fragments if you replace water in your aquarium, clean gravel and use buckets to pump water in and out.”
For now, the source has not been confirmed and the push is underway to remove the algae as soon as possible from China Cove and Newport. While native to Florida and other tropical countries, it can transcend natural habitats in California, experts said.
So far, divers have not discovered the algae elsewhere in the harbor. But that will require polls over time to be sure and repeat the removals if more are discovered, Merkel said.
“There is a good chance it has spread, we just do not know where – which is the biggest fear we have,” Merkel said.
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