A researcher makes note of the various species in a bin during the 2018 biodiversity survey of the Port of Long Beach harbor. Photo courtesy of the port.

Plants and animals are thriving in the San Pedro Bay harbors, despite sharing space with the largest port complex in the nation.

A 2018 biological survey released in April identified more than 1,000 species living in the harbors around the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the highest recorded biodiversity in over two decades.

Among the animals observed in the area were 104 species of fish, 87 species of bird and five species of marine mammals. Nine fish species typically associated with areas such as reefs were observed in the harbors by biologists for the first time.

The presence of Garibaldi, sheepshead, horn sharks, moray eels and others shows shallow structured habitats such as the breakwater are providing areas for fish to grow, feed and prosper, according to the report.

“Every survey we’ve been seeing progress,” said Matt Arms, assistant director of environmental planning for the Port of Long Beach. “Seeing the increasing abundance of pollution-sensitive species is an indicator of a healthy harbor.”

Kelp coverage in the summer of 2018 more than doubled from any previous study and eelgrass has been found at deeper depths than before, both of which are essential for marine life to flourish, Arms said.

Of the 10 most abundant bird species observed during the 2013 and 2018 surveys, three—the brown pelican, the elegant tern and the double-crested cormorant—are listed or proposed for listing as threatened or endangered. According to the report, the presence of these birds indicates the port complex provides important foraging and roosting opportunities.

Since 2006 and the introduction of the port’s Clean Air Action Plan, a heavy emphasis has been placed on air quality in relation to port operations. But in the 1990s, the port launched its Healthy Harbor program with a focus on water quality, Arms said.

“It may not be forefront in the news now … but that doesn’t make it less important.,” Arms said. “The work is continuing, we still have staff and resources devoted to this.”

In 2009, both ports adopted the Water Resources Action Plan, which outlined additional programs to improve water and sediment quality within the harbors. The ports’ water programs include the development of stormwater treatment and pretreatment technologies that keep pollution and debris from entering the harbors.

Researchers gather information on species of animals and plants that are thriving in the Port of Long Beach harbor. Photo courtesy of the port.

Additionally, the ports have implemented best practices for all operators that ensure good housekeeping protocols that keep on-dock debris from ending up in the water, Arms said.

“We’re the downstream sink of Los Angeles, one of the most urbanized, industrialized watersheds,” Arms said. “It’s been a source of a lot of pollution that settles and stays.”

Legislation such as the Clean Water Act and permit programs like the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System have had a tremendous impact on the amount of pollution entering the harbors via the LA River, Arms said. The reduction of pollution does not only benefit the harbors but surface water and bodies of water throughout the country, he added.

Container ships utilizing the ports are highly regulated, Arms said. To ensure shippers adhere to regulations related to vessel discharge, the ports developed a guidance document to explain the do’s and don’ts. Additionally, the port connects ships to shore power, which allows them to turn off their engines at berth and reduce particulate matter pollution of the water.

“Those particulates are coming down on the surface of the water, getting into the water column, then into the sediment and into the ecosystem at large,” Arms said. “The more we can reduce those emissions, the more we can reduce what gets into the ocean.”

The ports conduct biological surveys every five years but, like the never-ending job of painting of the Golden Gate bridge, Arms said the process for the next is already underway. Defining the scope of the survey, preparing and signing contracts—all things that must be done ahead of the actual survey are already in motion, Arms said.

“[Improving water quality] is the right thing to do and is part of our commitment to be a steward of the environment.” Arms said. “Every year I say it, but this was our most exciting survey yet and I look forward to … seeing even better results in the next one.”