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The SEA lab in Redondo Beach celebrated 20 years of leading Marine education programs on Sunday August 12, 2018 with a summer carnival featuring games, marine petting zoo and activities. Education coordinator Jennifer Kolbauer instructs Steven Hiduegi, 7 of Redondo Beach and Carrie and Vance Paige on how to feed the fish. Photo By Charles Bennett

In the latest casualty to a Redondo Beach waterfront in limbo, the SEA Lab aquarium and the white sea bass grow-out—both more than 20 years old—will close at the end of June.

The decision was announced by the operators of the aquarium, Los Angeles Conservation Corps, at a Monday, June 3, meeting with employees, local officials and volunteers, according to two people who attended.

In a statement issued Tuesday, June 4, the organization cited recent changes in ownership of the building had prompted an "in-depth look at the financial and programmatic realities of running an aquarium," among its reasons for closing.

The conservation corps said staff was working to find new homes for its marine animals.

"The South Bay community has embraced us as we set out to educate visitors and encourage environmental stewardship," said CEO Wendy Butts in a statement. "This program has been a great success for us. We'll move knowing that we accomplished a lot at the SEA Lab." 

In an interview in March, Butts explained how support from AES, which the SEA Lab had enjoyed for two decades, was being decreased and the organization was unable to receive a long-term lease with the new owner, Leo Pustilnikov, who plans to develop the area.

Since taking over the property from AES — located across the street from the power plant, which Pustilnikov also plans to buy — the developer put the SEA Lab on a month-to-month lease.

SEA Lab officials were assured they could stay until plans for the property come together, which could be years.

Mayor Bill Brand said he was disappointed to hear the SEA Lab would be closing and held out hope that it could come back to Redondo Beach once the development at AES takes place and the city creates its 25-acre park, as currently proposed.

"We’ve done everything we can to find a more permanent place for the SEA Lab," Brand said. "But we are tied up in litigation in the rest of the harbor. We're looking forward to crafting a future with them when the whole place gets redeveloped."

The SEA Lab first opened in Redondo Beach in 1997 with $5 million from a court settlement over the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station. Since then, more than 250,000 children have learned about the ocean through hands-on experiences. Thousands more worked and volunteered at the aquarium.

For the past 20 years, the SEA Lab has also housed tanks that support a white sea bass grow-out, funded by the same settlement agreement and part of a state-led program to spawn, raise and release white sea bass into the ocean.

With the SEA Lab, so goes the grow-out.

For Rich Ford, co-director since the beginning of the Redondo Beach grow-out, said the closure of the program means there will likely be fewer white sea bass in local waters. The local grow out — one of 13 in Southern California — releases up to 20,000 fish per year.

Numbers of the once-threatened white sea bass have been improving in recent decades thanks to programs such as the grow-outs, Ford said.

White sea bass are an elusive fish that are nearly impossible to catch by rod and reel, making it a spear fishermen's pastime—and a challenging one at that.

The fish can grow to nearly 100 pounds, but most never make it to maturity. White sea bass need to be at least 28 inches to take. One caught in 2016 near Ventura and traced back to the Redondo grow-out was 13 years old and 42-inches long.

This year, Ford and his team will need to release their bass about three months early, giving the fish just half the time they usually let them spend in two grow-out pens in the back of the SEA Lab aquarium.

Last week, they released into the ocean two full-size white sea bass who lived for years in large display tanks at the SEA Lab. With both looking for a new home, Ford said they have not given out hope to find a new facility.

"We're still trying to scratch our heads," he said. "Could we get the money? Where could we put it?"

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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