El Nino sends rare tropical visitors to California waters

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This Years El Nino Is Strong


LOS ANGELES, Nov 13 (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.

See photos of the El Nino phenomenon:

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El Nino's effects
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El Nino sends rare tropical visitors to California waters
NOAA has released an update to its El Niño advisory. This image shows the satellite sea surface temperature departure for the month of October 2015, where orange-red colors are above normal temperatures and are indicative of El Niño. This event is forecast to continue through the winter, likely ranking as one of the top 3 strongest events since 1950, before fading in late spring or early summer. El Niño has already produced significant global impacts, and is expected to affect temperature and precipitation patterns across the United States during the upcoming months. Seasonal outlooks generally favor below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States, and above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation over the northern tier of the United States. (Photo via NOAA)
MAKASSAR, SOUTH SULAWESI, INDONESIA - SEPTEMBER 21: Two girls are seen walk behind of dried up ricefield at Manggara Bombang village, Maros district on September 21, 2015 in Makassar, Indonesia. Indonesia's national disaster management agency has declared that the majority of the country's 34 provinces are experiencing drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, the worst drought in the past five years. The dry season forces villagers to walk long distances to find clean water. (Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)
NOAA issued an update to the El Niño analysis on September 10, 2015, in which forecasters from the Climate Predication Center say a strong El Niño is in place and likely to peak in late fall/early winter, and gradually weaken through spring 2016. This image shows the satellite-based average sea surface temperature data from the week of August 31 - September 6, 2015. Blue areas are cooler than the 1981-2010 average; red areas are warmer than that historical base period. The large pool of warmer than average temperatures along the equatorial Pacific is indicative of the El Niño conditions. (Photo via NOAA)
Sea surface temperature anomalies in November 1997 (left) compared to July 2015 (right). (Photo via NOAA)
A couple tries to cool off from the heat caused by El Nino with water overflowing from a defunct but still watery reservoir called the Wawa dam in Montalban in Rizal, east of Manila on February 21, 2010. El Niño was expected to dehydrate the Metro Manila area over in the next two months, according to the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Earlier this month the government warned a possible drought caused by the El Nino weather system could slash Philippines rice yields this year. AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tons of dead fish are seen on the banks of the Solimoes River due the water's low level, November 25, 2009 near Manaquiri, 120Km from Manaus. The dry season, affected by the weather phenomenon EL Nino, is worse this year. According a study from Brazil's universities USP,UNICAMP,UFRJ and Embrapa, the country could lose some USD 3.6 billion over the next 40 years. AFP PHOTO / ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)
Heavy clouds covers Indonesia's capital city of Jakarta on November 29, 2009. The month of November ends the dry season and starts the wet period but the weather bureau anticipates El Nino's dry spell to affect Indonesian weather. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

The first ever sighting off California's coast of a largemouth blenny fish was made over the summer near San Diego, said Phil Hastings, a curator of marine vertebrates at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

That species had previously only been seen further south, he said, off Mexico's Baja California.

Small, colorful cardinalfish were also spotted this year off San Diego, while spotfin burrfish, a rounded and spiny species, were sighted off the coast of Los Angeles, said Rick Feeney, a fish expert at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Those tropical species are hardly ever found in Californian waters, he said.

'NEVER SEEN IT LIKE THIS'

Some small tropical fish could remain in the state's waters over the coming months, researchers said, as El Nino is expected to last until early next year.

"As soon as the water gets cold, or as soon as they get eaten by something else, we'll never see them again," Love said.

For sports fishers, it was so-called pelagic zone fish like wahoo, that live neither close to the bottom nor near the shore, which made this year special.

Before the El Nino, California anglers only saw wahoo, a fish with a beak-like snout and a slim body that often measures more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length, when they made boat trips south to Mexican waters.

This year, there were 256 recorded catches of wahoo by sport fishing party boats from Southern California, with almost all of those being taken on the U.S. side of the border, said Chad Woods, founder of the tracking company Sportfishingreport.com.

Last year, he said, the same boats made 42 wahoo catches.

Michael Franklin, 56, a dock master for Marina Del Rey Sportfishing near Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Bay, said this was the best year he can remember, with plentiful catches of yellowtail and marlin.

"I've been fishing this bay all my life since I was old enough to fish, and I've never seen it like this," he said.

Many hammerhead sharks also cruised into Californian waters because of El Nino, experts say.

Sport fisherman Rick DeVoe, 46, said he took a group of children out in his boat off the Southern California coast this September. A hammerhead followed them, chomping in half any tuna they tried to reel in.

"The kids were freaking out because the shark's going around our boat like 'Jaws'," DeVoe said. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Hay)

RELATED: See recent weather across the U.S.

16 PHOTOS
Recent weather across the U.S., November
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El Nino sends rare tropical visitors to California waters
SANTA ANA, CA., NOVEMBER 9, 2015: Sarad Lopez (cq) holds an umbrella while her mother shops on Fourth Steet in Santa Ana during a light rain November 9, 2015 (Mark Boster/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ANA, CA., NOVEMBER 9, 2015: Keisha Flores holds her umbrella while she shops on Fourth Steet in Santa Ana during a light rain November 9, 2015 (Mark Boster/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 06: A plane flys above the Tidal Basin on a warm evening November 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Unseasonably warm weather in the Eastern U.S. has made the first few days of November feel more like late Summer. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Leaves change color on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 4, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 06: A woman rides a bicycle around the Tidal Basin on a warm evening November 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Unseasonably warm weather in the Eastern U.S. has made the first few days of November feel more like late Summer. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
People walk along Times Square in New York on November 6, 2015. New York recorded its hottest November 6 in nearly 70 years, as skaters splashed through puddles on a much-loved ice rink and commuters strolled around in T-shirts. AFP PHOTO/ JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman has an ice-cream on a cone as she walks along a street in New York on November 6, 2015. New York recorded its hottest November 6 in nearly 70 years, as skaters splashed through puddles on a much-loved ice rink and commuters strolled around in T-shirts. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 06: A helicopter flies above the Tidal Basin on a warm evening November 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Unseasonably warm weather in the Eastern U.S. has made the first few days of November feel more like late Summer. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
JACKSON, MS - NOVEMBER 07: Volunteers exit the course after play was called due to inclement weather during a continuation of the second round of the Sanderson Farms Championship at The Country Club of Jackson on November 7, 2015 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2015: Snow making in full force after a fall Sierra Nevada storm dropped nearly a foot of snow at Mammoth Mountain and less in town in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2015.(Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2015: A bike rose rides through snow in town after a fall Sierra Nevada storm dropped nearly a foot of snow at Mammoth Mountain and less in town in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2015.(Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2015: A fall Sierra Nevada storm dropped nearly a foot of snow at Mammoth Mountain and snowmaking is piling on in anticipation of a November 5 opening day in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2015.(Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 30: Residents of the Onion Creek neighborhood were evacuated in the morning October 30, 2015 in Austin, Texas. After Hurricane Patricia's passing last week, the region was hit with more torrential rain and possible tornadoes. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 30: Residents of the Onion Creek neighborhood were evacuated in the morning October 30, 2015 in Austin, Texas. After Hurricane Patricia's passing last week, the region was hit with more torrential rain and possible tornadoes. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 30: Residents of the Onion Creek neighborhood were evacuated in the morning October 30, 2015 in Austin, Texas. After Hurricane Patricia's passing last week, the region was hit with more torrential rain and possible tornadoes. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
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