El Nino sends rare tropical visitors to California waters

Fri Nov 13, 2015 10:44am EST
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By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - El Nino's warm currents have brought fish in an unexpected spectrum of shapes and colors from Mexican waters to the ocean off California's coast, thrilling scientists with the sight of bright tropical species and giving anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch.

Creatures that have made a splash by venturing north in the past several weeks range from a whale shark, a gentle plankton-eating giant that ranks as the world's largest fish and was seen off Southern California, to two palm-sized pufferfish, a species with large and endearing eyes, that washed ashore on the state's central coast.

Scientists say El Nino, a periodic warming of ocean surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific, has sent warm waves to California's coastal waters that make them more hospitable to fish from the tropics.

El Nino is also expected to bring some relief to the state's devastating four-year drought by triggering heavy rains onshore.

But so far precipitation has been modest, and researchers say the northern migration of fish in the Pacific Ocean has been one of the most dynamic, albeit temporary, effects of the climate phenomenon.

Even as marine biologists up and down the coast gleefully alert one another to each new, rare sighting, the arrival of large numbers of big fish such as wahoo and yellowtail has also invigorated California's saltwater sport fishing industry, which generates an estimated $1.8 billion a year.

"Every tropical fish seems to have punched their ticket for Southern California," said Milton Love, a marine science researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Some fish made the journey north as larva, drifting on ocean currents, before they grew up, researchers said.   Continued...

Ryder DeVoe ,17, holds up a Wahoo fish he caught with a spear gun while free diving off the coast of San Diego, California October 19, 2015 in this handout photo provided by Rick DeVoe, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Rick DeVoe/Handout via Reuters