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Vacuums may be used to remove dead fish; remains will be used for fertilizer

March 9, 2011 |  6:17 am

Dead fish

Dozens of officials and volunteers were racing against the clock Wednesday to remove perhaps millions of dead sardines and other fish from Redondo Beach's King Harbor.

Authorities and dozens of volunteers were skimming floating sardines. Divers were expected to complete their survey work to assess how many fish are under the water's surface. Officials said they have to siphon those fish using a giant vacuum device.

Fishmap Officials estimated it could take days to complete the job. Remains of the dead fish will be used for fertilizer.

Larry Derr, who heads bait operations at King Harbor, said the big winners amid the stench of dead fish are sea lions and seagulls.

"They are sitting there fat and happy," Derr said. "They don’t know what to do with themselves; there are thousands of them."

Authorities said it appeared that a massive, churning ball of sardines, and some mackerel and anchovies, was chased toward shore over the last few days, primarily from a spring storm that brought wind gusts of 45 mph off the coast last weekend. Hungry, migrating whales spotted offshore in recent days may have added to the sardines' plight.

So officials said the sardines did what anyone might — they headed for safe harbor, to a picturesque complex of four marinas that is home to 1,400 boats (mostly private fishing boats, sailboats and cruisers), an easygoing town of surf shops, dive bars and tanning salons.

There, they suffocated.

Even at high tide, King Harbor is only 22 feet deep, and though it is home to mackerel and perch, there simply wasn't enough oxygen to support such a massive influx of fish, even of the four-inch variety, officials said. The basin of the marina complex the fish chose also happened to be a spot with very little water movement, critical for maintaining oxygen levels.

State wildlife officials sent a batch of the fish to Sacramento, where they will undergo necropsies and chemical analyses. But the officials described that process as a formality; two independent water samples conducted Tuesday revealed no trace of toxins, nor any oil slick, nor any suggestion of an algae buildup that had caused problems in the past.

"It is a naturally occurring -- but unusual -- event," said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. "It's just a mess."

The fish are beginning to decompose. That will draw bacteria, which will, in turn, consume more oxygen. That could imperil more fish, experts said.

-- Nate Jackson, Andrew Blankstein and Tony Barboza

Photo: A couple eases their boat through a mass of dead fish at the King Harbor Marina in Redondo Beach. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times