El Niño Brings Endless Summer

Hammerhead shark seen during Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari in Dana Point, California
Hammerhead shark seen during Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari in Dana Point, California

A long stretch of warm ocean water combined with humidity and rare summer rainstorms are creating some unusual winners and losers along the Laguna Beach shoreline, say ocean experts.

The balmy water normally found off Baja California, where temperatures are typically higher than Southern California, has been hovering along the local coastline for nearly two years, said Jeremy Frimond, Laguna’s marine protection officer. Summer, said Frimond, seems endless.

Due to north-moving wind currents, the warm water moved about 500 miles north of the Mexico border and was last seen here in 1997-98, another El Niño year, according to reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The tropical rainfall in July is only a drop of what’s to come in the next six months, said Nate Mantua, research scientist for NOAA’s fisheries ecology division in Santa Cruz. Persistent wind currents off the Southern California coast precipitate an El Niño and, with stronger El Niño conditions expected this winter, the warm water will move even closer to shore, he said.

“It usually doesn’t rain at all in Southern California in the summer,” he said. “We’re expecting a lot more tropical storms and hurricanes off the coast of Mexico.”

Fishermen are catching species usually found off the Mexico coast, according to local reports. Yellowtail, yellow fin and blue fin tuna, dorado and an occasional marlin are finding their way onto hooks in Southern California waters, according to Mantua and fishing reports from Dana Point Harbor. “You don’t usually see yellowtail swimming in 10 feet of water,” Frimond said.

For other species, like sea lions and struggling baby sea stars, the warming trend might not work out so well.

“We’re kinda spooked,” said Pete Raimondi, marine biology professor at UC Santa Cruz. Raimondi and his team of scientists are leading the West Coast’s research for a Cornell University study on the massive die-off of West Coast sea stars two years ago.

“In the past, El Niño events are very bad times for sea stars and, in fact, all echinoderms, such as sea urchins and sea cucumbers,” said Raimondi. “This El Niño is likely to make a very bad situation much worse.”

That’s a prediction based on the 1983-84 and 1997-98 El Nino weather events, Raimondi said, where sea stars were ravaged by the warm water. “Now we’re in a really bad situation because there’s so few animals left,” he said.

The number of baby sea stars, however, is running amuck, he said. “It’s been a monstrous year for baby sea stars,” Raimondi said. “From the border of Mexico through Alaska, it’s been the best year we’ve seen ever for babies in the past 22-23 years. You’d look down at an area the size of your hand and see 12 babies.”

Survival of the young sea stars is another question. As the first generation to replenish the species on the West Coast, scientists are watching closely to see if enough sea stars survive until they can reproduce. Sea stars thrive in cooler, more nutrient-rich ocean water, said Raimondi.

Sea lions are also taking a hit. “The sea lions that are giving birth at the rookeries in the Channel Islands have had a series of really rough years for their young,” said Mantua. The playful marine mammals thrive on sardines, which prefer warm water, he said. A series of cold years reduced the number and productivity of the small prey fish, depriving mothers of enough food to produce milk for their pups, he said.

That, on top of an exponentially growing population of sea lions, is putting “a huge demand for food resources at a time when they’re very scarce,” he said. The population here has increased by about five percent every year since the early 1970s when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, Mantua said.

Dolphin and whale-watching boats out of Dana Point Harbor are also spotting warm-water sharks. “We’re seeing a lot of hammerheads about three miles out,” said Dave Anderson of Capt. Dave’s dolphin and whale-watching tours, “and a lot less of the ocean sunfish.” Anderson said he’s also seeing “strings of whale sharks,” blue and minke whales and orcas.

This summer also saw thousands of red tuna crabs or pelagic red crabs indigenous to warm southern waters washed up on the Orange County shoreline, stranded with most eventually dying.

With calm seas in July and part of August, visibility underwater up to 50 feet and sea-surface temperatures hitting the high 70s, Frimond said he was in the water as much as work would allow. “With this hot, humid weather, the only place to be is the water,” he said.

Despite the storms and warmer water, kelp, which thrives in cold water, is, so far, keeping a stronghold on the ocean’s floor, said marine biologist Mike Curtis. Curtis and his team from MBC Applied Environmental Sciences planted 25 acres of kelp along the Laguna Beach coastline in 2002 that burgeoned to more than 100 acres, he said.

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  1. I’m on the ocean in my kayak often. San Simeon to ventura.
    I paddled area i have not been in a yr or so.”more mesa” santa barbara.
    There was a lot of kelp from the small seal rock area to hope ranch beach, it all gone.
    The kelp on the pipe line from Goleta pier is all yellow.


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