By Charlotte Stevenson, Science Writer with University of Southern California Sea Grant
Be honest. Someone mentions Southern California and a picture from the 1990s hit TV series Baywatch flashes into your head of the red-suited lifeguards with red buoys, standing in lifeguard towers, overlooking shimmering heat rising off the quintessential white, sandy beaches bordering an epic shore break. Don’t be embarrassed. Actually, this scene from TV fiction is not that far from reality, which is why 50 million visitors a year are drawn to Southern California’s endless summer beaches.
Ocean and coastal tourism and recreation account for $17.6 billion of the State’s GDP, with Los Angeles County bringing in a little over $2 billion of that total. Perhaps it is not surprising that coastal tourism is extremely important to the economies and identities of Los Angeles and California, but NOAA now reports that tourism is ranked within the top three factors contributing to economic growth and development in every state in the country. This is why University of Southern California Sea Grant, along with the 33 other Sea Grant programs in the country, has made sustainable coastal tourism—balancing economic growth with healthy coastal ecosystems—a top priority for research, outreach and public education.
Seal Beach of Los Angeles County, CA, became known as “Ray Bay in the early 2000s due to record numbers of ray stings on beachgoers. (Photo credit: Holly Rindge/USC Sea Grant)
In the early 2000s, when popular Seal Beach in LA County gained the colloquial epithet, “Ray Bay,” due to the unusual frequency of ray stings (200-300 annually), it drew the immediate attention of scientists, county officials, and USC Sea Grant. “Ray Bay” was not good for the economy, and the initial solutions were not good for stingrays. Threats of resurrecting ecologically unsound tactics such as culling and ray-fishing competitions led USC Sea Grant to fund research by shark and stingray specialist Dr. Chris Lowe at California State University, Long Beach to improve overall understanding of the habitat preferences, migratory patterns and physiology of the Round stingray inhabiting “Ray Bay.”
The Round stingray is not naturally aggressive, using its tail spine simply as a defense mechanism against predators; but in crowded waters like Seal Beach, this defense mechanism was being used against clumsy human feet. USC Sea Grant and Dr. Lowe hoped his research would reveal non-lethal means of reducing stingray injures to humans.
Urobatis halleri, commonly called the Round stingray. (Photo credit: Phyllis Grifman/USC Sea Grant)
Ultimately, Dr. Lowe’s research showed that the stingrays had developed a particular affinity for Seal Beach because of its unnaturally increased temperature due to warm water discharged into the Bay from a power plant using seawater to cool its machinery. Rays seek warm, protected coastal bays and lagoons seasonally for breeding, and many of the stingrays’ previous estuarine and bay habitats had been destroyed over the past century by development. Dr. Lowe also proved that the most effective and ecologically-sound method to prevent ray-related injuries is to do the “stingray shuffle,” a simple shuffling of your feet along the bottom that warns the ray of your presence, causing them to swim away.
The research has been used over the last decade for public education in the form of lifeguard training, beachside posters, public aquaria displays, webpages, and K-12 education. The findings from this research has made Seal Beach a worldwide model on managing the effects of stingrays on beachgoers, and the “stingray shuffle” is becoming a popular dance for beach visitors in areas frequented by stingrays such as Panama and Florida. USC Sea Grant is proud to have been part of this project, ensuring that this public hazard and impediment to coastal tourism was addressed quickly through management and public education informed by sound science.
 Los Angeles County. 2013. “Annual Report.”jjjjj
 NOAA Office for Coastal Management. 2015. “The National Significance of California’s Ocean Economy.”