How is El Nino Changing Our Oceans?

How is El Nino Changing Our Oceans?

Written by Lisa Folino

My family moved to Newport Beach California in 1968. Back then, it was a quiet city by the ocean.  We went to the beach together on a regular basis; we dug for clams, we explored the tide pools of Corona Del Mar beach and little Corona Beach, and we swam in the sea without any fears or concerns.  I still call Newport Beach my home, but the changes I am witnessing as an adult are severe and alarming. The tide pools once overflowed with life–sea anemones, crabs, juvenile fish–but that is no longer the case.

Conditions are particularly poor during El Nino years. El Nino is the warm phase of a reoccurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific called the El Nino Southern Oscillation or ENSO. El Nino is associated with above average sea surface temperatures, increased rainfall over the tropical Pacific Ocean, and changes in wind direction. The last few El Nino years have been much warmer than usual and have had an extremely negative impact on marine life all over the world. For example, El Nino has affected the sea lion population up and down the California coastline.  It is an epidemic, with the sea lion pups starving as the warm waters push the adult females farther out to sea to find food.  It is common to see dead sea lions on these once pristine beaches.  The marine mammal centers on the California coast are beyond capacity working to save the starving and malnourished pups.

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Whenever I visit Newport Beach I spend time talking with the fishermen of the Dory Fleet.  The Dory Fishing Fleet and Market is a beachside fishing Co-op located in the city of Newport BeachCalifornia. It was founded in 1891 at the base of what was then McFadden Wharf, now known as the Newport Pier. Newport Beach was formed around the Dory Fleet, and it is a registered historical landmark.  The fishermen are forced to go farther out to sea as the fish are not where they once were, and they now employ sustainable fishing practices.

In May 2016 we had visitors to our beaches not normally seen in this area in the form of hundreds of thousands of tiny red crabs lining the Southern California beaches. The Pleuroncodes planipes, also known as pelagic red crabs or tuna crabs, look like tiny lobsters or crawfish and are about 1 to 3 inches long. They are usually found off Baja, but because of El Niño conditions with currents pushing in from the south, the crabs have washed up in recent years along the Orange County coastline. Before then, the crabs hadn’t been seen in the area for decades.  When visiting the beautiful Crystal Cove Beach, many of these small crabs that did not get washed back out to sea were dying, littering the beach with waves of red.

The effects of El Nino can be witnessed and felt globally. In Southern California we are seeing more changes in marine life than ever.  Shark encounters and sightings along California’s coast are at their highest level in decades, and scientists are warning that warmer waters mean beachgoers will have to be on the lookout for the predators all summer. We have had many Great White Shark sightings and a recent shark attack off the pier at Newport Beach. Scientists have been studying the rising sea temperatures and how they are affecting the Catalina Horn shark. It was immediately evident that the metabolism of the sharks increased significantly and were consequently having to feed more frequently. Could this be a reason for the increase in shark sightings and behavior?

I am saddened by the changes I have seen over my lifetime, but this is a wakeup call to all global citizens. We must make changes immediately or I fear there will be a tipping point of no return for our oceans and mankind.

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