US & World

California Struggles to Protect Waters from Aquatic Invaders

Caulerpa Taxifolia, an invasive seaweed from the Mediterranean Sea, cost the state of California $7 million to eradicate from coastal waters.
Caulerpa Taxifolia, an invasive seaweed from the Mediterranean Sea, cost the state of California $7 million to eradicate from coastal waters.
Courtesy Susan Zaleski/USC Sea Grant

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Since the Gold Rush, California's been a destination for an unwanted hitchhiker. Invasive marine plants and animals can create expensive damage to ecosystems by squeezing out native species. Still, public agencies say it's a challenge to find money and support to prevent problems. As California builds a plan to manage aquatic invasions, KPCC's Molly Peterson examines the effectiveness of programs aimed at stopping seagoing pests.

Molly Peterson: He's a gregarious bear of a man, but no amount of smiling can make Daryl DeCarr a welcome sight on ships new to the port of Long Beach.

Daryl DeCarr: State of CA, see the chief officer please?

[Sound of walking onto Chinese scrap metal ship]

Peterson: DeCarr's presence means paperwork. Under a novel law aimed at stopping non-native species from taking hold in state harbors, he spot-checks ships' records. Working for the State Lands Commission, De Carr moves fast. But, he says, inspectors check, at most, half the incoming ships.

DeCarr: The whole ballast management plan? And the ballast water logbook? Can I get a photocopy of that please?

Peterson: Ballast is water ships carry to maintain stability at sea. They drop it when they take on cargo in port. Scientists believe that water can carry invasive species larvae from places like New Zealand and Asia.

[Sound of Chief Officer saying numbers in Chinese]

DeCarr: You speaking Chinese?

Chief Officer: Yeah.

DeCarr: You got a question, ask me in English, okay? I'll help you out.

Peterson: California makes shippers keep records of how much water is in the ballast tanks – and trade out tank water from foreign ports with open-ocean water that's less likely to cause damage. Shipping companies must pay around $400 each trip to fund the program. DeCarr says sometimes ship's crews don't get it.

DeCarr: This will be a long one. (laughs)

Peterson: DeCarr spends hours on the Tai Hawk, with some officers, trying to piece together the ship's history. After a long while, he and captain Tai-shey Yuan recognize each other – from an earlier inspection trip.

DeCarr: Tai Progress! You remember? I remember you now. Last year in Long Beach. Wo yo jeige form. Why didn't you have your chief having a ballast water form? Well, good to see you again.

Peterson: DeCarr has to give up. The Tai Hawk's records can't tell the whole story. The ship gets a warning; he'll check up on it next time. The State Lands commission's program manager, Maurya Falkner, says shipping company relations are important when federal law doesn't require what California does.

Maurya Falkner: When the bill went into effect, there was a fair amount of grumbling and opposition from the industry. Our compliance initially was pretty lousy. But it really helped that there was a civil penalty component to the law.

Peterson: About 98 percent of shippers comply on inspection, Falkner says. But the San Francisco Estuary Institute's Andrew Cohen doesn't think the program's working well enough. Cohen says ships should treat water before they dump it – and should fund research about treatment options.

Andrew Cohen: What we're trying to do with ballast water is we're trying to kill or remove organisms that are trapped in a big tank of water. But not that big compared to tanks of water where we treat and disinfect all the time in water and waste water programs.

Peterson: Science, he says, can do more than policy asks. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hears arguments August 14 about whether the federal government must treat ballast water as pollution under the Clean Water Act. Williams College marine biologist Jim Carlton says shipping vessels are only one way aquatic invaders can damage the environment.

Jim Carlton: Added to that in its modern manifestation are the often rapidly growing industries in moving live seafood, live bait industry, aquaculture, mariculture, and one of the real looming waves of invasion is the amazing availability of live organisms on the Web.

Peterson: Regulators are paying attention to some of them. State and federal money is paying for one program that targets hobbyists who buy invasive species for their aquarium tanks. California has spent $7 million so far fighting Caulerpa taxifolia – a seaweed native to the Mediterranean that took hold in Huntington Harbor. USC Sea Grant's Susan Zaleski says some residents there keep back-porch tanks right on the harbor.

Susan Zaleski: and they're using the water from the harbor and spitting it back out and there was actually Caulerpa in the tanks and so theoretically it could easily have spit fragments of water back into the harbor.

Peterson: Zaleski says Sea Grant is still trying to spread the message to the whole state – through a cartoon fish that warns against dumping aquarium tanks down toilets or along the coast.

Cartoon Fish: I could die or worse, become invasive like this Caulerpa Taxifolia.

Cartoon Boy: Eww, that's gross!

Cartoon Fish: Remember: Don't release a pest, freezing is best!

Peterson: But distributing cartoon pamphlets and talking to retailers hasn't kept the seaweed out of the state. At an aquarium plant specialist along Wilshire Boulevard, Zaleski points out tanks full of invasive Caulerpa and other seaweed that look like it.

Zaleski: it's really difficult to tell them apart. They'll change their appearance under different light conditions, and different nutrient levels, and different temperatures, so you can get different variations of each species.

Peterson: California harbors have gotten rid of the bad kind of Caulerpa, and aquatic wildlife managers including Zaleski call that a success story. But if someone dumps the seaweed in a harbor again, that success could be fleeting.

Zaleski: Yeah, I would say that it is a worry.

Peterson: With invasives, Zaleski says, the work never ends.