REDONDO BEACH, Calif. (AP) - After a night of gusty winds rocking their vessels, boaters in aSouthern California marina awakened to find a carpet of silveryfish. About one million lifeless sardines packed into the harbor,stacking 12- to 18-inches deep in some spots.
The sardines apparently depleted the water of oxygen andsuffocated after getting lost in the marina, officials said.Despite a daylong effort Tuesday to scoop up fish in nets andbuckets, the cleanup can take up to a week and the smell was boundto get worse.
"All indications are it's a naturally occurring event," saidAndrew Hughan, a California Fish and Game spokesman.
The die-off was unusual but not unprecedented.
"In the world of fishing, this is an afternoon's catch," henoted.
The scale was impressive to locals at King Harbor Marina, whichshelters about 1,400 boats on the Los Angeles County coast.
"The fishermen say they've never seen anything this bad thatwasn't red tide," Hughan said, referring to the natural blooms oftoxic algae that can kill fish.
Hughan said water samples showed no oils or chemicals that couldhave contributed to the deaths. He said some of the fish were beingshipped to a Fish and Game laboratory for study but the cause waslikely to be uncomplicated.
The fish appeared to have come into the marina during the nightand probably got lost, he said. The 30-foot-deep marina simplycouldn't provide enough oxygen for such a massive influx offish.
Two tests of some of the water on Tuesday showed oxygen levelsnear zero.
Yet other theories abound.
Hughan noted that some fishermen reported waves coming over theharbor breakwaters during the night. That washes bird excrement offthe rocks and into the marina, and can cause the water to bedepleted of oxygen.
Staci Gabrielli, marine coordinator for King Harbor, said thefish appeared to have moved into the harbor to escape a red tide,then possibly became trapped due to high winds overnight.
Ed Parnell, a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution ofOceanography, called Gabrielli's theory plausible, althoughgenerally he would expect the wind would have mixed oxygen into thewater.
Parnell said these types of fish kills are more typically seenin the Gulf of Mexico or the Salton Sea, the enormous desert lakein southeastern California where millions of fish die with someregularity.
Brent Scheiwe, an official of Sea Lab, a Los AngelesConservation Corps research program, said the fish may have gottentrapped in the marina while sheltering from rough seasovernight.
"They like to follow each other, so it only takes a few" tocreate a mass migration, he said.
"Over time, they will find their way out, but if it's rough outthere they probably stayed in shelter," he added.
Redondo Beach police Sgt. Phil Keenan said he believed apredator fish chased the sardines into the marina where their sheernumbers caused them to suffocate.
Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at University ofCalifornia, Santa Cruz, said sardines are not the brightestfish.
"They are that dumb actually," he said. "They get into shallowwater and then can't figure out how to get back out, and you've gotsuch a concentration in one small area they literally pull theoxygen down until they suffocate."
Fire department, harbor patrol and other city workers wereexpected to continue dredging up the fish and haul truckloads ofthem to a landfill, where they will be turned into fertilizer. Cityofficials estimated the cleanup would cost $100,000.
On the water, nature was tackling the problem in other ways.Seals and pelicans flocked to the marina to feast on sardines, andlarge groups of other fish were seen nibbling at the floating matsof their dead brethren.
Carl Johnson, 59, and his wife, Marie, 57, came from nearbyTorrance to see the fish calamity.
"We've had that stuff of the hundreds of birds dying in theMidwest, and now this. ... You do think about life and death," hesaid.
"These fish were swimming freely yesterday," he saidphilosophically.
Marie Johnson added: "It's really sad."
Associated Press writer Noaki Schwartz in Los Angelescontributed to this report.