In the early 20th century, the Port of Los Angeles was the fishing capital of the U.S. with thriving communities of fishermen, tuna processing, and fisheries that brought in tons of sardines, mackerel, squid, and other seafood. Over a century later, the ports of Los Angeles and neighboring Long Beach play a major role in international trade and, together, rank among the Top 10 seaports in the world by volume of containers handled per ship. While their daily objective is the movement of imports and exports across the country and around the world, for decades they’ve also taken an active stewardship role to ensure their day-to-day operations aren’t negatively impacting the fragile marine ecosystems that also reside in the same coastal waters.
After conducting separate environmental studies since the early 1950s, the ports teamed together in 2000 to launch what would become a regular series of comprehensive biological surveys. Now held once every five years, these studies are aimed at collecting a variety of in-depth data about the baseline conditions of marine habitats in the harbors, along the coast, and in the bay. Before winning the contract, in 2017, to conduct the fourth edition of these studies, our team provided the ports with new ideas and enhanced methods to gather more information that would provide deeper, more comprehensive insight on the health and biodiversity of the waters the ports call home.
Understanding the Ecosystems
By focusing on a wide range of habitats and the plants and animals living in them, the program is aimed at ensuring the ports are meeting – or exceeding – their shared responsibility for environmental stewardship. This means examinations of a variety of habitats: soft bottom environments, like mud, sediments or sand; kelp and eelgrass beds; fish and invertebrates living on the seafloor or burrowed into sediment; and fish and marine mammals living in the water column. It also includes hard-substrate areas at the ports, like riprap, breakwater structures and walls, as well as docks, piers and pier pilings. The goal is to provide the ports and the public with deeper, more detailed and informed insight on the health of these vital ecosystems through a broad spectrum of metrics.
We assembled a team of nearly 40 scientists for the fieldwork phase of this project from 2018 to 2019. We also partnered closely with our clients to ensure our work didn’t interfere with daily port operations or the arrival and departure of container ships. To further maximize comparisons to nearby bays and estuaries, we updated processing procedures to ensure the data gathered would be consistent with other regional coastal monitoring programs.
Since previous surveys hadn’t fully captured how ecosystems in hard-substrate areas were working, we sent scuba divers into those artificial, reef-like habitats to see what was living among the rocks, crevices and caves created by port infrastructure. We also designated pier pilings as their own component in the survey to better highlight our findings in those locations. Not only were exciting new data collected, but we also gained first-hand knowledge and captured hundreds of photos of the biological communities in those waters. Updates, like these, yielded more thorough information and our eventual findings that harbor habitats support over 1,000 different species of fish, invertebrates, algae, birds, and marine mammals. It is essential information our clients can have readily available when resource agency permitting is required for infrastructure projects, or species of special management status need to be identified.
All data collected were used to compile statistical models to provide added insight into any differences found among habitats and what the drivers were. For example, in bay locations where kelp grows, how are they different from similar inner harbor areas with less wave energy but more sedimentation? What was found there? What wasn’t? Our goal was to bolster observations, like these, with solid numbers and a mathematical certainty that would provide the ports deeper insight into the unique characteristics of various biological environments. A key component of open water habitats is the ports’ navigation channels, which can run 35-to-60 feet deep to accommodate massive container ships. We found the deeper water provides a daytime refuge for fish that might otherwise fall prey to predators such as seabirds. While the composition of the core bird community hasn’t changed in 25 years, we did see a reduction in the abundance of birds, compared with previous years, likely due to recent, regional marine heatwaves.
New Techniques & Making Headlines
All counted, over 50 locations were surveyed. While traditional seine nets and epifauna trawls were used to evaluate marine life populations in some areas, we also used new techniques and introduced the ports to new tools, like satellite imagery, which holds potential for improved mapping of kelp canopy habitat and water quality monitoring. We also partnered with UCLA and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to explore what more could be learned from free-floating environmental DNA (eDNA). To do that, we collected water samples from several locations - immediately prior to using trawl nets - to compare the animals found with each method. Environmental DNA is a non-destructive, non-invasive, and cost-effective way to obtain detailed information about the biodiversity of tested waters, and it yielded exciting discoveries about animals not usually observed with existing survey methods, including large migratory animals, such as humpback whales and great white sharks. The results of this study will be published in a peer-reviewed journal to help guide resource managers on how to incorporate eDNA into their regular monitoring framework in marine ecosystems.
It was our team’s low-tech discoveries, though, that made the headlines. Our dive teams found three species of abalone – pink, green and white – during surveys of the outer harbor. California coastal waters once teemed with these marine snails, but overharvesting decimated their populations. Most abalone species, today, have been closed to fishing for 20+ years, and both black and white abalone are endangered. The green and pink abalone we found were big, indicating they’ve likely been present in the ports for decades. The white abalone we discovered was all alone and, today, is part of a NOAA captive breeding program. We helped modify the approach to underwater surveys to specifically capture findings, like these, to gain key insight on marine life that was underrepresented in earlier surveys.
Engine of Commerce & Biodiversity
Even as a major industrial port complex that is a booming engine of commerce globally, nationally, and locally, it still plays a crucial role as an environmental steward. Our team found that marine communities aren’t just coexisting with port operations at San Pedro Bay – they are thriving along with them. Our surveys yielded the highest-ever biodiversity results throughout the port complex. All counted, more than 56,000 fish were evaluated, almost 50,000 birds and over 62,000 invertebrates were identified, demonstrating the marine habitats are supporting a wide range of animal groups, as reflected – in our full survey report, released on Earth Day 2021. In addition to that 381-page report, we also created additional public and value-add resources and materials the ports had long sought for community outreach, like a brochure, a series of story maps, and a website that launched in April 2022.
Our scientists, environmental planners, permit compliance staff, and engineers partner with Southern California’s major ports on a wide range of projects, including water quality monitoring, stormwater permit compliance, sediment characterization and dredging, as well as biological resources. This biodiversity study is now part of that wide-ranging support. We remain focused on providing solutions that strengthen resiliency, improve sustainability, and ensure that our clients not only meet but exceed the environmental challenges they face – today and tomorrow. Being a good listener to their needs is key to our success.