The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

Rare catches and sightings already are being made, and if this is anything like 1997-98 it will be a very interesting summer for anglers and scientists

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NOAA issued its latest El Niño forecast Thursday, calling for a high chance of the warm-water event becoming a reality in late summer. Though NOAA predicts a weak to moderate El Niño, other forecasters have predicted a stronger event, perhaps rivaling the powerful 1997-98 El Niño, which severely altered weather patterns and lured tropical and sub-tropical species of fish hundreds or thousands of miles north of their typical range. 

With this in mind, and since peculiar sightings and catches already have been documented this summer, we looked back to the 1997-98 El Niño, making note of some of the many odd fish visitations, perhaps providing a glimpse of what’s in store for California and the West Coast over the next several months.

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California:

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Yellowfin tuna; photo via Mark Rayor/Jen Wren Sportfishing

Yellowfin tuna

Common in sub-tropical waters off Mexico (mainland, southern Baja California, Sea of Cortez). Often caught off northern Baja in late summer, but rarely encountered beyond the U.S.-Mexico borderexcept during warm-water events.

Despite how powerful El Niño becomes, this is a warm-water summer and yellowfin are on the move. A small yellowfin was captured two weeks ago by scientists in Newport Harbor in Newport Beach, California. Anglers are hooking them as close as 50 miles south of San Diego. Sea-surface temperatures are as high as 75 degrees off Southern California; that and an abundance of anchovies means it’s probably only a matter of time before more yellowfin are encountered locally.

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

Hammerhead shark spotted last week off Dana Point, California; photo by Dale Frink/Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari

Hammerhead sharks

Three species of hammerhead sharks are known to inhabit California waters. Sightings are rare, however, and typically associated with warm-water events. Two hammerheads were spotted during the past week off Dana Point, Orange County. Only one was photographed: a 6-foot shark (pictured above) that is either a smooth hammerhead or a scalloped hammerhead.

According to the scientific paper “Observations on Fishes Associated with the 1997-98 El Niño off California,” at least 10 juvenile scalloped hammerheads were captured in 1997-98 in San Diego Bay. The paper’s authors, Richard Rosenblatt (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and Robert Lea (California Department of Fish and Wildlife), wrote: “The number of scalloped hammerhead taken during the 1997-98 El Niño, as well as their relative small size, suggests that during extreme warm-water conditions San Diego Bay may serve as a nursery area for this species.” The paper noted that three scalloped hammerheads were caught off Los Angeles County during the 1982-83 El Niño.

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Mahi-mahi, or dorado; photo via Mark Rayor/Jen Wren Sportfishing

Mahi-mahi

These colorful, acrobatic, and delectable game fish, which like yellowfin tuna are commonly found off southern Baja and points south, were targeted by California anglers during the past two powerful El Niños (1997-98 and 1982-83). In 1997-98, mahi-mahi, more commonly called dorado in Mexico, were caught as far north as Washington state. The dorado watch is on after a Balboa Angling Club member caught a 17-pounder Wednesday off Orange County. These fish gather beneath floating offshore kelp paddies, and where there’s one there most likely are many others.

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Bonefish; photo via Bennett Mintz

Bonefish

Uncommon but not rare along Mexico’s west coast (super common and hugely popular among fly anglers in the and Caribbean). Rarely seen in California, but several bonefish were documented in 1998, in bays and estuaries from San Diego to the Venice Canal in Los Angeles County. A juvenile bonefish was caught off Morro Bay in Central California. From “Observations on Fishes Associated with the 1997-98 El Niño off California”: “The year 1998 appears to represent a unique recruitment event for bonefish off Southern California.”

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Mexican lookdown; photo via Gary Graham/Baja on the Fly

Mexican lookdown

Aptly-named fish are commonly seen (and caught) cruising shallow reef areas in the Sea of Cortez. Extremely rare off Baja’s northwest coast and California, but between December 1997 through April 1998, several dozen were caught in San Diego Bay by commercial fisherman Mike Irey. He donated several specimens to Scripps Aquarium.

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Cornetfish; photo via Wikipedia

Cornetfish

Elongated, stick-like fish that hang around reefs in tropical and sub-tropical waters. Snorkelers and scuba divers commonly see one of two species (Fistulatia commersonii, or reef cornetfish) in the Sea of Cortez and off the Mexican mainland. In May 1998, two deepwater cornetfish (Fistularia cornet) were collected by scientists off Huntington Beach in Orange County. The farthest north the species was previously documented was Bahia San Hipolito off Baja California Sur. Pictured is a reef cornetfish.

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Jack crevalle; photo via Mark Rayor/Jen Wren Sportfishing

Jack Crevalle

Widespread in the Sea of Cortez and along central and southern Mexico. Very popular among anglers, and extremely rare off California. The jack crevalle caught in January 1998, in San Diego Bay, was only the fourth documented jack crevalle in California waters, according to “Observations on Fishes Associated with the 1997-98 El Niño off California.” The last previous California documentation was 1984.

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Striped marlin; photo via Mark Rayor/Jen Wren Sportfishing

Striped marlin

Striped marlin are not unusual catches in late summer and early fall off Southern California. But it’s rare to find them north of Los Angeles County. During powerful El Niños, they are driven or lured far north of their range. In September 1997, Capt. Mike Halbert and anglers Dick Miller and Cle Elum teamed to land what was believed to be the first striped caught off Washington state. The 104-pound striper was caught 30 miles off Westport. Videoland Productions wrote: “This catch is a graphic example of El Niño (the warming of Pacific waters) and its effect on coastal fisheries. Temperatures have been 68 degrees off the Washington coast this summer, at least 6 degrees above normal.”

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Threebanded butterflyfish; photo by Andy Murch/Elasmodiver.com

Threebanded butterflyfish

Colorful reef dwellers that teem in the tropical eastern Pacific, simply do not belong anywhere near California. However, on November 1, 1997, a threebanded butterflyfish was observed in the San Diego-La Jolla Ecological Reserve, and was videotaped in the same area three weeks later. On December 12, a threebanded butterflyfish was captured in King Harbor in Redondo Beach. Rosenblatt and Lea, in their paper, stated that these were the first record of the species in California since two specimens were collected in San Diego Bay during the Pacific Railroad Survey in the 1850s.

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California

10 exotic fish El Niño might send to California: Pufferfish; photo via Mexfish.com

Pufferfish

Comical-looking critters are a favorite among snorkelers and divers in tropical and sub-tropical waters. Very rarely seen north of Magdalena Bay in southern Baja. During the 1982-83 El Nino, five longnose puffers were caught from the Redondo Beach Pier in L.A. County. At least five puffers, longnose and bullseye, were collected by scientists in 1998. Locations include La Jolla, Santa Catalina Island, and El Segundo.

–Editor’s note: This is only a partial list and does not include many species that are typical of northern Baja and Southern California, but were encountered much farther north, such as San Francisco, Oregon, and Washington.

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