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Volunteers scoop nets of dead anchovies into bright orange buckets at the Santa Cruz harbor on Thursday. (Kevin Johnson -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ -- Trudie Ransom caught more fish Thursday afternoon than she'd caught in her life, just not the kind she wanted.

Ransom was using a net to scoop some of the hundreds of thousands of lifeless anchovies from the water of the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor where a massive fish die-off Wednesday night prompted the closure of part of the harbor.

For Ransom, the owner of the SUP Shack Santa Cruz, the fish kill was bad for business.

"The sooner I can get this cleaned up, the sooner we can get into operation," she said.

The fish kill prompted harbor officials to close the boat launch ramp while crews and volunteers work to skim the fish from the water.

"It's kind of a natural occurrence that happens from time to time," said John Haynes, acting harbormaster. "With the sheer number of anchovies we had in the bay this year, we had an idea it might happen, but we did everything we could."

The die-off is the third in three weeks. On July 18, thousands of white croakers washed up on Manresa State Beach likely caused by a squid boat accidentally catching them in a net. On July 25, scores of dead anchovies washed onto the beach at Capitola near Esplanade Park.

County officials also warned of unsafe levels of bacteria at New Brighton State Beach, Main Beach and Cowell Beach west of the wharf to Collins Cove. The levels were from water samples taken Wednesday. Officials said that other county beaches were affected by the advisory but that people should stay out of the water off of the three beaches.


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At the harbor, the boat launch ramp is expected to be closed until at least Friday afternoon while cleanup efforts are underway.

For weeks, anchovies have been lush in the Monterey Bay, drawing whales near the shore to feed. The tiny fish also had been swirling into the harbor, darting underneath the docks and around boats. But around 8 p.m. Wednesday, a large school of anchovies swam into the already crowded harbor, depleting the little oxygen there was left in the water and triggering the mass death.

Preventive efforts included installing dozens of aerators to pump oxygen into the water, an effort that started in mid-June.

The phenomenon isn't new, with a similar situation occurring at the harbor in October. In the harbor's history, there have been four massive anchovy kills in harbor history: 1964, 1974, 1980 and 1984. Those fish kills forced the removal of 1,000 to 2,000 tons of fish.

While many of the dead anchovies floated to the surface, filling nooks and crannies between boats and the docks, there were hundreds lying on the bottom of the water, according to Haynes.

"I'm willing to bet that there will be plenty of fish in the morning," he said. "If not the morning, for sure Saturday morning we'll have quite a few fish on the surface."

Harbor workers were walking along the docks scooping up the dead anchovies from the water and dumping them into buckets, with plans to take the haul to the landfill in the coming days.

Schools of fish were still swimming in the water and there are plans to net and move them from the harbor.

The only ones who didn't complain about the dead fish were the birds, who flocked to the harbor for an easy meal. One sea lion bobbed back and forth in the water among the fish. While birds normally fight for scraps of food, they soared side-by-side and dove into the water, helping to remove the anchovies.

Other efforts to clean up the harbor were planned by Save Our Shores, a nonprofit based out of the harbor that focuses on keeping county beaches clean. Marina Maze, program coordinator for the nonprofit, said she has a few volunteers already enlisted to skim fish from the water Friday morning.

"Everyone's standard of clean is a little different," Maze said. "Even though it's not trash, we're still expected to keep it clean for local businesses to stay open." ------ (c)2014 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at www.santacruzsentinel.com