NEWPORT BEACH, Calif .– For the first time, scientists say they have seen a species of bright green algae growing in the waters off California – and they hope it will be the last.
Invasive algae can invade the environment and displace essential food sources for marine animals on the southern California coast. On Wednesday, a team began removing the patch of fast-growing algae known as caulerpa prolifera from Newport Beach harbor, sucking it through a tube and filtering the ocean water.
The process will take four or five days and much longer until scientists can determine that the algae is gone for good. So far, it has been confined to an area of around 1,000 square feet (90 square meters) not far from a small but popular beach. But tiny fibers can easily break loose and settle elsewhere.
“We’re at a point here where we have a chance to get rid of it,” said Robert Mooney, a marine taxonomic services biologist overseeing a large pump that a team of three divers uses to remove algae. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting to see what happens.”
The discovery of the species late last year and confirmation this spring prompted federal, state and local authorities to act. They are eager to prevent it from spreading, noting that algae has invaded other habitats like the Suez Canal. It was crucial to act quickly, they said, as swimmers and boaters moving through the water could contribute to the spread of algae.
California faced a similar problem two years ago when a related invasive algae was detected off the coast of Huntington Beach and Carlsbad. Its eradication cost $ 7 million and prompted the state to ban the sale of caulerpa taxifolia and other algae.
This species – known as “killer algae” – has caused many problems in the Mediterranean Sea. It is not edible by many fish and invertebrates and can displace plants that are, Mooney said.
“Looks like someone took a roll of AstroTurf and laid it on the seabed,” said Christopher Potter of the California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
The recently identified invasive algae at Newport Beach are related but are not prohibited in California. It’s used in some saltwater aquariums, and scientists believe it probably ended up in the harbor when someone washed an aquarium, possibly in a storm sewer.
“It is more than likely that the source is an aquarium release,” said Keith Merkel of Merkel & Associates, biological consultant on the project. “It can spread from very small fragments if you replace the water in your aquarium, clean up the gravel, and use buckets to draw the water out of it.”
As of yet, the source has not been confirmed and efforts are being made to remove the algae as quickly as possible from China Cove to Newport. Although it is native to Florida and other tropical regions, it can overtake California’s natural habitats, experts said.
So far, divers have not detected algae elsewhere in the port. But it will require investigations over time to be sure, and repeated removals if more is detected, Merkel said.
“There’s a good chance it has spread, we just don’t know where – which is the biggest fear we have,” Merkel said.