California braces itself for invasion of the killer algae

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The Independent US

If this were a movie, it might be called "Revenge of the Killer Algae", the lurid, somewhat tacky story of predatory plant-life bursting out of a humble fish tank to lay waste to vast areas of ocean.

If this were a movie, it might be called "Revenge of the Killer Algae", the lurid, somewhat tacky story of predatory plant-life bursting out of a humble fish tank to lay waste to vast areas of ocean.

Come to think of it, it might soon become a movie, because the same mutant weed that has caused havoc across the northern Mediterranean has just been detected off the coast of southern California.

The man-made algae, Caulerpa taxifolia, has turned up in an environmentally sensitive lagoon in Carlsbad, about 20 miles north of San Diego, and is now threatening the plants and fish that live on the lagoon floor. C taxifolia is not believed to carry any disease bacteria, but is still a severe ecological threat.

"This species is a very, very serious problem,'' said one local expert, Robert Hoffman of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It moves in and displaces anything that is normally found along the ocean bottom and becomes the one single species that dominates the habitat."

The Agua Hedionda Lagoon is near some of California's most popular beaches, including the resort town of La Jolla, and a stone's throw from the area's latest attraction, Legoland. Just as in a B-grade movie, the algal strain was developed by a German scientist - with the aim of decoratingtanks in public aquaria.

When some escaped from the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco into the Mediterranean in 1984, 10,000 acres of sea habitat were destroyed and the algae is still not under control. At the time, the institute's director was Jacques Cousteau, the film maker and defender of marine ecology.

The Californian outbreak appears to have come when somebody emptied the contents of a fish-tank into a sewer that drains into the lagoon.

Scientists in Carlsbad are confident they can beat the mutant algae by isolating the lagoon and bombarding it with chlorine and copper sulphate herbicides. But they aren't excluding other outbreaks. Just as with the creakiest horror film villains, the killer plant from the black lagoon may well live to fight another day.

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