Toxin May Have Contributed to Sardine Die-Off

Marine biologists think poisoning from an acid generated by an algae bloom may be a possible cause

A day after a series of mild tsunamis stirred the remaining 30 tons of decaying and stinking fish clogging King Harbor, the great sardine cleanup resumed Saturday.

Marine biologists now think poisoning from an acid generated by an offshore algae bloom may be a possible cause for the freakishly large die-off. Whether driven into the artificial harbor by bad weather, predator fish or acid- driven mass insanity, millions of the fish went belly-up and an estimated 70 tons of them died Tuesday.

A USC oceanographer said the fish had domoic acid in their stomachs -- a naturally occurring toxin that comes from an algae bloom and is well known to infect the entire marine food chain at times. The Los Angeles Times reported today that an algae bloom has been spotted in Santa Monica Bay about 12 miles off the coast.

"It is possible that high levels of domoic acid in the sardines in King Harbor may have exacerbated physiological distress of the fish brought on by oxygen depletion in the water," wrote USC professor David Caron in a report obtained by The Times. He also said the domoic acid "may have been a contributing factor for them congregating in the harbor at very high abundances, but this has not been confirmed."

And as if to spread the misery, several tons of the slimy, decaying biomass slid off a truck near Riverside Friday afternoon, coating Interstate 215 with mushed, stinky goo and causing a 10-mile traffic backup some 60 miles inland.

Sardines are plankton eaters and travel in giant schools. One school got trapped in the confined yacht harbor Monday amid stormy conditions, as winds gusted across the South Bay up to 40 mph.

The cleanup of King Harbor is expected to cost the city $100,000 or more. If the decaying fish are not removed, rotting fish might kill the sea life that normally lives in King Harbor.

In the related mishap, tons of fish scooped from the harbor and being trucked to a fertilizer factory in Victorville slid onto Interstate 215 in Colton shortly after 3 p.m. Friday. Two lanes were slimed and traffic backed up 10 miles into Riverside.

Cleanup crews mixed the oily fish residue with soil to shovel it up and get the lanes reopened for the height of the afternoon commute.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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