By Eric Heinz
An optimistic outlook of the numbers of fish inhabiting the Wheeler North Reef (located off the coast of San Clemente) from a 2014 study conducted by UC Santa Barbara was diminished in its own 2015 study, which was presented during a workshop Monday at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point.
The reef is an artificial construct financed by Southern California Edison as part of a mitigation requirement from the operations of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
As required by the California Environmental Quality Act, provisions of the agreement must restore a certain amount of aquatic plant and animal life around the reef. The goal is to have an annual count of about 28 tons of fish inhabiting the reef.
In 2014, the study found the reef was up to 24.4 tons—the highest since its construction in 2009—but in 2015 the amount had dropped to little more than 17.7 tons. The 2014 study noted warmer waters at the time may have attributed to the amount of fish inhabiting the Wheeler North Reef.
A proposal discussed during the workshop was to increase the size of the reef to reach the goals. Representatives of SCE said they are in the midst of speaking with the California Coastal Commission, which oversees the implementation of the reef, to propose an extension or size increase of the reef.
The cost of the increase and degree of the implementation would depend on what SCE decides to propose.
Steve Schroeter, research ecologist with UCSB, gave part of the presentation of the reef on Monday.
“The current reef is no more than three feet off the bottom, and high relief would make it 6 to 9 feet off the bottom,” Schroeter said. “One of the speculations (in 2014) of the possible (increase) of fish was the high rise in water temperature, which fostered more southerly fish … and in fact the fish that were accounted for were sheep head, a more southern species, and large sand bass.”
Schroeter said the fish counts have fluctuated over the years.
“We couldn’t guarantee this was a trajectory,” Schroeter said. “If you look at the time series, the numbers have gone up and down and back up. The data we’ve been collecting since 2000 shows the requirements that would bring the fish count to 28 tons.”
Kate Huckelbridge, Ph.D., of the California Coastal Commission Energy, Ocean & Federal Consistency Division, said there could be a proposal seen by the commission by next year to extend the reef.
“If (the data) shown of the existing reef is not meeting the conditions of the permit, which is what we’ve seen for the last couple of years, and we do not think it will ever meet the goals … the commission can require them (SCE) to do the remediation,” Huckelbridge said. “Our executive director can send a letter to SCE to require it, but if they don’t agree to what the commission proposes, they can have (their concerns) heard by the commission.”
Southern California Edison must have 36 total years of mitigation goals met in order to meet the requirements. All the requirements must be met in order to fulfill the agreement. Despite the fish amounts not meeting the mitigation goals, all other requirements, such as kelp, covered substrate of the artificial reef, fish diversity and limits of invasive species, have been met all years of testing since 2009.