Toxic Sediment in San Diego Bay

cleanup san diego bayPhoto 9MPhoto.comSan Diego Bay looks beautiful, but under the sparkling water, there’s a toxic secret.  

The bay’s sediment, the ground underneath the water, poses a serious public health threat, and causes ongoing contamination of aquatic wildlife and organisms. A 1996 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study examined the health of 18 inland waterways and identified the bay, which was once a calving lagoon for the California Gray Whale, as the second most toxic bay in the nation. 

According to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, more than thirty locations in San Diego Bay suffer from unhealthy water, ground beneath that water or both. A federal list that identifies unhealthy waters, called the 303(d) list, includes San Diego Bay for 20 separate pollutants--including copper, mercury, PAHs, PCBs, zinc, and chlordane--along with general toxicity in the bottom of the bay and the harmful effects to plants and sea life that live there. These pollutants continue to find their way into San Diego Bay from urban runoff and copper-based paints on boats.

Due to the fish contamination from these pollutants, the Port of San Diego posted all piers along San Diego Bay with fish consumption advisories. Unfortunately, anglers – many who come from underserved populations-- still catch and eat fish from the bay, resulting in serious human health risks.

One of the prominent sources of the bay’s pollution is the runoff from Chollas Creek, which is one of the most polluted waterbodies in San Diego County, making the Pueblo Watershed (of which Chollas Creek is the dominant waterbody) one of the region’s most damaged and unhealthy to reside within.

Much of the legacy pollution in the San Diego Bay comes from the shipyards and Navy facilities that line the eastern shore of the bay. In 2003, Coastkeeper and Natural Resources Defense Council successfully sued Southwest Marine (now BAE), the Navy's largest ship repair and maintenance facility on the West Coast, on charges that it failed to implement required measures to prevent toxins from flowing into San Diego Bay. This case reached its conclusion when the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the shipyard's final appeal. Southwest Marine had challenged the September 1999 U.S. District Court ruling, later upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, which required the shipyard to improve their stormwater pollution prevention practices and found the company liable for $799,000 due to recurring permit violations.

Coastkeeper now works with environmental and community partners to achieve a San Diego Bay cleanup of contaminated sediment and waters located within and adjacent to BAE Systems San Diego Ship Repair and National Steel and Shipbuilding Company leaseholds, approximately 60 acres, just south of the Coronado Bridge.

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Fishable Facts

  • Kelp forests play home to more than 700 species of marine creatures.
  • Many factors including pollution, climate change, and over-fishing contribute to kelp forest decline, and their collective impact is far greater than any individual stressor.
  • Research has shown that grazing by inflated sea urchins populations damaged kelp forests and slowed recovery in the '50s to '70s off Point Loma. Sea otters, lobster, and sheephead fish are important predators, keeping urchin populations in check.
  • Many fish off California's coast are in such decline that some species will take 50-80 years to recover to healthy levels.
  • La Jolla's lush kelp forest is like a stand of underwater redwoods – it provides food and shelter for hundreds of species, from tiny invertebrates to fish, mammals and birds.
  • Since 1990, revenues from commercial fishing have declined by more than half and the number of fishing boats calling at California ports has declined by nearly three-quarters.
  • Average size across a wide range of West Coast fish is down by half from 20 years ago.
  • A 40-cm bocaccio rockfish produces an average of just over 200,000 eggs per year, whereas an 80-cm fish at double the length produces nearly 10 times as many eggs (2 million)!
  • Nearly 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources.
  • Regardless of their size, plastic pollution bits are not digestible by any creature.
  • More than 60 percent of all marine debris is plastic.
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