Crews clean up millions of dead sardines in Redondo’s King Harbor

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Susan Valot/KPCC

Dead sardines pulled from King Harbor in Redondo Beach sit in a wheelbarrow, waiting to be disposed of on March 8, 2011. Millions of dead fish filled the northern part of the harbor after a swarm depleted the water in the area of oxygen.

Crews spent the day scooping, hauling and dumping millions of sardines that died and floated to the surface in King Harbor in Redondo Beach last night.

They used nets to scoop the dead sardines off the surface of the water. Then they dumped the fish into buckets and wheelbarrows and then used heavy machinery to move the mounds of silver to giant trash bins.

Mike Maurer of Redondo Beach watched nearby, amazed at the sheer number of fish that carpet the bottom of the harbor, like a mass of coins in the bottom of a wishing well.

"Miles of silver," he said. "I’ve never seen so many fish in my life."

Mike Long of Hawthorne came over to check on his boat in the harbor. He says the guy in the slip next to his – a lifelong Redondo man in his mid 80s - has only seen a fish kill this bad here once before.

"This is the first time I’ve ever seen it," Long said. "It’s just unbelievable."

Officials say it appears to be a natural occurrence. Redondo Beach Fire Department Division Chief Steve Hyink said they started getting reports from boaters yesterday that a large “bait ball” - a giant school of millions of frenzied sardines - had moved into the harbor. It was really windy last night, too.

"Because of the high winds, I think it pushed that bait ball into our harbor and as they came in, they found nice, calm waters and they started to disperse. And several million of them made their way back into Basin One, which is kind of a closed basin and there’s not a lot of surge so you don’t get a lot of fresh water flowing through there," Hyink said. "And with all those fish in that area, I think they consumed the oxygen and that’s what caused the fish kill."

Hyink said it’s similar to what happens with red tide.

"Red tide comes in and the algae consumes the oxygen and it kills the marine life," he said. "This is the same kind of thing except this time it was fish consuming the oxygen instead of the plant life."

Hyink said it’s the worst he’s ever seen in his 27 years with the Redondo Beach Fire Department.

"The biggest challenge is first getting them out of the water. What you see on the surface right now, you’re only seeing about a quarter of what’s actually out there. So we’ve surprisingly cleaned quite a few of the fish out already that we can get to," Hyink said. "But we can’t get to what’s on the bottom. So that’s going to be our challenge because as they start to decompose. I don’t know if they’re going to surface or just decompose on the bottom."

Only about a quarter of the dead fish floated to the surface. Officials said there was about a foot to a foot-and-a-half of dead fish on the harbor floor.

Hyink says crews will spend the next few days, watching the harbor and cleaning up fish carcasses as they rise to the surface.

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