What’s the Most Polluted Harbor in America?

Posted March 5, 2014 by Kimball Livingston

Polluted? Surely not Marina del Rey.

But, out of tests performed in ten harbors in America, on the day of the Rozalia Project’s testing in Marina del Rey, that spiffy enclave four miles north of LAX, and just south of hot, hot, hot Venice Beach, rang the bell as the most polluted harbor in America.

We’ll have to add qualifiers, so don’t stop reading here. But if you care about Marina del Rey, you need to know.

Source: visitmarinadelrey.com

Source: visitmarinadelrey.com

Because, yes, we’re talking about the Marina del Rey that was created in the days when any car worth having sported tailfins to the stars. Home over the years to the yachts of the stars. Also the nation’s largest man-made pleasure-boat harbor with more than 4,000 slips, according to the Los Angeles Times, or, according to MarinaDelRey.com, home to “more than 6,000 recreational boat slips, the highest density of restaurant seating in a one-square-mile area outside of New York City, and boat launching ramps that provide access to over 100,000 trailer-class boats annually.”

In its best moments, it’s just lovely.

The nonprofit Rozalia Project has devoted recent years to testing waterways on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, trawling with a standardized, replicable system and then counting what’s there besides water. Plastic, for example. Plastic, especially. They’re not analyzing toxicity; they’re measuring a volume of trash, including tiny trash. (Including even the tiny-tiny-tiny beads of plastic used in many of the facial exfoliants on the market. Those exfoliant beads go down the drain, and then they go guess where.)

Rozalia Project director Rachael Miller reports that the team’s tows in Marina del Rey “produced a count of 282,000 pieces of trash per square kilometer. That’s an incredible amount. Even our tows on the East River didn’t match that.”

Tows near Point Loma, in San Diego Bay, produced a count of 21,000 pieces of trash per square kilometer, less than ten percent of the count on test day in Marina del Rey.

foam dock float-2Miller is quick to add that these were date-specific surveys. The Rozalia Project isn’t big enough, yet, to run long-term, robust studies all across the country. Samplings have not been made exhaustively in Marina del Rey, or San Diego, or the East River. “I’m confident of the data that we have,” Miller says, “but we can’t extrapolate from one or two days of towing in any given harbor to say that Marina del Rey always has the most particulate pollution.”

Got it. But that alarm bell is ringing.

The test date for Marina del Rey was November 13, 2012, and you might wonder why data from 2012 is “news” in 2014. Simply because numbers mean little without comparisons. I had my first contact with the Rozalia Project much more recently, when I rode along on tows in San Francisco Bay. I was naturally interested in how my hometown harbor fit in. The conversation led to this comparison of sampling results that have taken several years to accumulate. The per-tow numbers often varied widely. Here are harbor averages:

1. Los Angeles – Marina del Rey: 282,000 pieces of trash per km²
2. Port of LA/Long Beach: 88,000 pieces of trash per km²
3. Philadelphia – Delaware River: 83,555 pieces of trash per km²
4. New York Harbor: 74,000 pieces of trash per km²
5. Boston – inner harbor: 58,557 pieces of trash per km²
6. San Francisco Bay: 23,818 pieces of trash per km²
7. San Diego – near Point Loma: 21,000 pieces of trash per km²
8. Seattle – Lake Washington: 14,000 pieces of trash per km²
9. Chicago – inside breakwater: 8,500 pieces of trash per km²
10. Vancouver – off Jericho: 3,500 pieces of trash per km²

What's in the water. Source: rozaliaproject.org

What’s in the water. Source: rozaliaproject.org

About the results for Marina del Rey, Miller says, “The good news is, we believe we’ve found the culprit. “It’s an action item. The fix is affordable.”

Affordable, because if Miller is correct about the source of Marina del Rey’s spike in plastic, the fix is already built in to capital expenditures—if someone is on the ball.

The test-day photographs seem to indicate that, at the time of testing, elements of one or more of Marina del Rey’s floating docks had deteriorated. The shell(s) encasing foam flotation had broken and was (were) spilling plastic foam at a prodigious rate. That particular type of foam is formed from tiny spheres, and as it breaks up, here comes the spike in your plastic pollution. “Without that plastic from failing dock flotation,” Miller says, “Marina del Rey would be looking OK, or at least no worse than most other harbors.

“To fix this, you wouldn’t have to go in and replace every floating dock. Instead, you could take action as one docks ages and needs to be replaced. There are other kinds of foam flotation you could use, and they don’t break up in this destructive way.”

Your reporter had an extended exchange of phone calls and emails with a spokesperson at the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, which administers the land and water rights of Marina del Rey on behalf of the City of Los Angeles and leases waterfront land to private lease holders in long-term agreements.

In our exchanges, we shared the Rozalia Project’s test methods and results and comparisons to other harbors. There was a concern on the part of Beaches and Harbors that the sampling might have occurred in the wake of a rainstorm, which washes detritus from a swath of LA down to the beach. My search of NOAA records did not support this, nor did the records of the Rozalia Project, which tracks weather as a factor in data collection. Ultimately, the Department released the following statement. I don’t blame them for hedging a bit, and, frankly, this sounds reasonable:

Beaches-Harbors“The Department of Beaches and Harbors is committed to working with the boating community and other stakeholders to provide the cleanest harbor possible. Tests of a single water sample taken from one location in the largest recreational marina in the United States cannot paint a full picture of the day-to-day water quality of the Marina, especially when the sample is taken after an early season rain event, when landside run-off often flows into the Marina. The plastic pellets used in floating docks are confined to boxes that should prevent their escape into the harbor. But if the micro-plastics can be traced to materials from debilitated floating docks, the Department would be willing to explore the use of alternative docks that contain no such materials and would certainly seek to address any other identifiable sources of such pollution.”

The graph below was published by weatherspark.com as a historical record of 2012 precipitation at LAX. I note what appears to be a spike just after mid-November (some days after testing) and even then, close reading reveals an amount of precipitation of less than one quarter of an inch. I don’t think we can ascribe Rozalia’s results to runoff.



We kicked off with the provocative question, what’s the most polluted harbor in America? By now, you know that we don’t have the answer. But if people who keep boats in Marina del Rey, and people who operate harbors in Marina del Rey, and the well-intentioned officials who administer Marina del Rey, all pay attention going forward—and if indeed dock flotation is verified as a pollution source—there you have one nasty problem that can be resolved as low-hanging fruit.

Re-spec’d dock flotation would be a noncontroversial and easier and cheaper problem to solve than the toxicity issues surrounding bottom paint, which Los Angeles is already trying to address. The bottom paint story has moved beyond what I am posting here, but it launched with the following notice:

ATTENTION BOATERS! Public Meeting on TMDL Proposal – February 6, 2014, 9:00 a.m. – The County has submitted comments to the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) on the proposed changes to the Marina del Rey TMDL. Next, the Regional Board will hold a public meeting on February 6, 2014 to discuss the proposed changes to the TMDL, which would require that 85% of boats moored in Marina del Rey have their hulls repainted with non-copper based paints by 2024. This would most likely require full stripping of a boat’s hull as well as more frequent in-water hull cleaning and repainting.

Now, that sounds expensive, and it produced the predictable blowback.


Midway-garbageMost of us have heard of the “Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is not at all the floating island of garbage once touted, but it’s actually more sinister. As with oceans elsewhere, the Pacific has a current flow around a central gyre where garbage collects. Scripps oceanographers, among others who have done on-site research, report that you can go there and see little in the water, but if you troll and assess, you discover that the water teems with tiny residue of plastic bits.

The brightest bits are taken for food by seabirds, accounting for dieoffs on Midway, for example, while others continually degrade into smaller and smaller plastic bits that work their way into the food chain.

And that plastic did not arrive mid-ocean by being thrown overboard from boats in mid-ocean. It came almost entirely from shoreside sources, carried on the wind, carried on the currents, abandoned to gradually turn into a new form of poison. I think the science on that is solid, and anything that can be done to reduce plastic pollution counts.

There’s a sign near Howlands Landing, Catalina Island: When you throw something away, where is “away” ?

THE PREMISE OF THE ROZALIA PROJECT is that, yes, the deep oceans are infused with tiny bits of degraded plastic which we expect will cause long term harm as they join the food chain. But there is no likely way to go out to the collection points, the gyres, and clean things up. And that plastic got there by washing out of rivers and streams and blowing off beaches and drifting with the currents. So the accessible intervention is close to home:

Keep bad stuff out of the water.

Education is part of it. So is knowing what we’re up against, which means taking measurements.

Rozalia’s measurement system employs a Neuston net, a hard-frame device developed by ocean scientists in the 1960s, originally for the purpose of capturing and studying neuston—marine life dwelling at or near the surface.

To capture pollution, the Rozalia Project’s net is towed from a boom extended outside the boat to undisturbed water, in this case beyond the bow wake of a boat traveling a standardized distance at a standardized speed. Rozalia’s tows run one quarter of a kilometer in a straight line. Trash per square kilometer data is extrapolated from multiple tows.

Midway photo © Chris Jordan

– Midway photo © Chris Jordan –

Probably, the Rozalia Project tows happened to coincide with a breakup of floating foam beneath identifiable floating piers. And then, all that plastic had to go somewhere, and there was only the water. If that actually was the process, you have to expect that there is a next pier in line, and a next.

To learn more about the Rozalia Project’s outreach programs and their collection of underwater debris using robotic machinery, visit Rozalia Project.

Below, we see a Newston tow in progress on San Francisco Bay. The vessel is the Derek M. Baylis, conceived and designed by Tom Wylie for conservation work and education. The Baylis has been on the case for years now, working much of the time on Monterey Bay. Here is what SeaLifeConservation.org has to say about the Baylis:

“The vessel was named after a man who was a mentor to the designers [and others, and father to three famous sailors: KL] and contributed his expertise to several marine institutions in the Monterey Bay area. The vessel has a rear deck like a trawler, living quarters crafted in a modern yacht style, and uses wind as its primary fuel. The Baylis was specifically designed and constructed to provide a comfortable, fast and eco-friendly vessel for research and education. The Baylis can be operated quietly, economically and emit zero pollution, making DMB specially suited for non-obtrusive monitoring. We carry up to 24 passengers comfortably on day trips, and 10 passengers on more extended voyages. The large cargo capacity, removable transom, stern-mounted titanium A-frame, and 22-foot long aft deck facilitate easy deployment of a wide range of gear.”

Towing from the research vessel Derek M. Baylis in San Francisco Bay. Photo KL

Photo KL

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