The governor’s restriction on state employee travel has pushed back a veterinarian’s scheduled visit for Monday, May 2, to an unknown future date, according to Redwood City spokesperson Malcolm Smith. But local biologists and residents are determined to get to the bottom of this aquatic mystery and are over-nighting specimens to the veteranarian.
Since April 21, nearly 40 leopard sharks and counting have washed ashore the Redwood Shores lagoon, numerous deaths that are quite uncommon for this species, according to Sean Van Sommeran, the Executive Director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, a volunteer-led nonprofit organization. Van Sommeran, who jumped on the case since the first reportings, has several hypothese but said he could not determine the exact cause until the Department of Fish and Game has conducted a complete analysis. In the meantime, specimens will arrive at Dr. Mark Okihiro’s doorstep by 10 a.m. today, according to Van Sommeran.
“It’s becoming more ubiquitous for numerous aquatic species to become extinct,” Van Sommeran said. “And I would hate for dead leopard sharks to become a standard sight on the seascape.”
Okihiro, a pathologist, will dissect the four-foot long shark and look for specific infections, like encephalitis, that have been detected in other marine species, infections that would indicate poor water quality, Van Sommeran said. A biochemist can examine the frozen specimens to detect any pesticides from recognizable lawn products or pollutants from petroleum spills.
“Just as fish would die in an aquarium that wasn’t adequately taken care of, these sharks might have been living in water with poor quality,” he said.
Just last week, city officials conducted a water quality test and found no unusual characteristics, according to Public Works Superintendent Marilyn Harang.
But Van Sommeran suggested that the constant flow of new water into the lagoon would not have allowed testers to accurately sample the water from the first round of leopard shark deaths.
“The best case would be that the water went stagnant because the tidal flood gates that control the water weren’t managed properly,” Van Sommeran said. “Because that situation can be rectified.”
An Absence of Routine Water Quality Testing
The city does not have a full-time biologist on staff and does not currently employ a water quality testing agency, even though the Regional Water Quality Control Board requires monthly testing of the water. From April to October, the Management Plan for the Redwood Shores lagoon states that the water’s salinity, temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity, or “cloudiness” is to be tested at seven different locations. The last time this occured was back in August 2010.
The city has submitted a request for proposal for water quality testing companies and currently has two proposals.
However, Scott Cressey of Cressey & Associates, the outside consultant that drafted the management plan, said that even if monthly testing had been done, few answers would have been reached.
“These tests only determine basic water characteristics like salinity levels when I suspect there’s something else, like bacteria, causing the deaths of this specific species,” Cressey said. “If it were a salinity issue, it likely would have affected all the other species living in the lagoon, not just the leopard sharks.”
He recommended amending the monthly requirement in the management plan because the seasonal pattern of the water’s turbidity is consistent throughout the year. In the winter, the water is typically less turbid, or cloudy, because fresh water from rain water run-off mixes with the salt water in the lagoon, according to Cressey.
He added that the leopard sharks and the other species were fairly tolerant of changes in salinity.
But Van Sommeran was a little more skeptical and said any additional water testing that could provide more information would have been useful.
“You don’t have to have a gasoline spill for water to go bad,” he said. “Poorly maintained water could result from accumulated landscaping products.”
He added that, in many instances, marine life becomes trapped in man-made culverts, storm drains, and “nicely developed canals.” Fortunately, this is something that can be averted in the future, he said, and he hopes new developers ”take heed of this example.”
The City’s Response
Since the first report was made, the city immediately began looking into the appropriate officials to contact, but were not able to make contact with the state department until April 26, five days later, Smith said.
Harang was out sick Monday and was able to connect with the state department the next day.
Van Sommeran said that the Public Works department informed him that they appreciated his efforts, but could no longer work with him or his organization. Legally, the city must contact the state department because the water flowing into the lagoon is from the Bay, according to Harang.
“And the Department of Fish and Game is the most appropriate agency for this work, with the resources, staff, facilities, and expertise to best carry out this investigation and analysis,” Smith added.
Unofficial volunteer organizations like the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation often run into legal issues with state regulators, who have the authority to handle these situations. But Van Sommeran explained that the research foundation has been investigated and educating the public about sharks for over two decades.
“Government officials often exclude you abruptly,” Van Sommeran said. “It’s just really frustrating.”
A Growing Shark Protection Movement
Some legislators have spurred the growing movement to protect sharks with the California Shark Protection Act, or AB 376. Introduced by Assemblymembers Paul Fong (D-Mountain View) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), AB 376 bans shark finning, a process in which fishermen cut off the fins and tails from live sharks and toss them back into the ocean, according to Fong’s website. Shark fin soup is a Chinese delicacy that has driven high market demand for this product.
To spread awareness about the aquatic animals, Van Sommeran has coordinated with Año Nuevo State Park officials in Pescadero to give a talk on May 7 about sharks and other marine species. He said he has also been in discussion with the to plan a larger educational event in the near future.
“Our top priority is conservation,” he said. “The leopard shark is a signature species for the San Francisco Bay and throughout California.”
And until the Department of Fish and Game produces results from lab analyses, Redwood Shores residents and concerned community members will have to wait for answers and hope that no more leopard sharks wash up along the shores.