LOS ANGELES – It was against the backdrop of a pounding surf that almost 30 people had gathered on the cragged and slippery folds of White Point tidal pools in San Pedro and set to work with gardening spades, buckets and bags.
They collected mussels, black turban snails, purple sea urchins and even a lobster. Then, they trundled back to their cars hauling sacks, backpacks and 5-gallon buckets filled with intertidal creatures.
“It’s a fun way to spend the day and grab a free dinner,” said Lisa Yan, 55, an unemployed casino card dealer. “Especially for those of us who lost jobs.”
Residents and officials say an unprecedented number of people have been harvesting edible sea creatures at the Palos Verdes Peninsula. In prior years, tidal pool etiquette held that creatures should not be disturbed. “I’ve never seen so many people combing these tide pools for food,” state game warden Doug Wall said.
The phenomenon appears to be fueled by social media posts that encourage the practice as a way to enjoy life outdoors.
Under California law, it’s legal to take invertebrate animals from tide pools with a sportfishing license unless the pools are located within a marine reserve or other special closure. Also, specific daily bag limits, seasonal restrictions, size requirements and outright bans apply to different species. For example, up to 35 purple sea urchins and up to 10 pounds of mussels can be taken in a single day. Lobsters can only be taken from October to mid-March.
Some recreational harvesters proudly displayed a license, others acknowledged they did not have one. Among them were four women who watched in dismay as Wall inspected sacks containing an estimated 175 pounds of mussels. “I didn’t know I needed a fishing license,” one said.
Residents say they worry about the environmental impacts of recreational harvesters. Overnight, the largest and most accessible expanse of tidal pools in the county had become a hot spot for people using gardening tools, crowbars and screwdrivers to gather seafood, they say.
“This is an ethical and moral issue: These tide pools won’t survive the pressure being placed on them right now,” said Tina Parageau, 52.
Peter J. Mirich, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge and resident who swims off White Point each morning, agreed. He said of the beach, “At one time it was a coveted tide pool place where kids could see garibaldi, abalone and mussels. Now, it’s decimated.”
Scientists say tide pools offer a valuable lesson in respect for the coastal environment, and have long cautioned against touching or picking up anything in them. “Certainly, tide pools can be picked clean and damaged just by walking through them,” said Bruno Pernet, a marine biology professor at Cal State Long Beach.
There are also health reasons to avoid taking live animals. An annual six-month quarantine on mussels was issued May 1 to protect the public from toxins that may be present in bivalve mollusks such as mussels, clams, oysters and scallops due to red tide conditions.
White Point isn’t the only coastal area that has seen an increase in harvesting, said Mike Quill, marine programs director for the nonprofit Los Angeles Waterkeeper. “The situation along the Southern California coast has deteriorated into insane Wild West conditions,” he said.
The trend has been particularly troubling to those who have sought to promote sustainable use of ocean resources. “I understand the need to feed your family and pay your bills,” said Linda Chilton, education manager at University of Southern California’s Sea Grant program. “I also understand that tide pools are extraordinarily important and fragile ecosystems that help sustain biodiversity and stabilize the shoreline.
“I don’t have a solution.”
In the meantime, state game warden Wall has his work cut out for him. He spent much of two recent mornings sorting through sacks of marine creatures that had been abandoned on the beach. Wall suspects harvesters dropped the bags after they caught sight of his truck.
The discarded catches included a 3-year-old lobster that he said “was taken out of season,” dozens of black turban snails, which can live 20 to 30 years, and bags filled with mussels that were harvested despite quarantine warnings.
“These animals were wasted,” he said. “They won’t survive and won’t even get eaten.”