These fish can fly, but will they fly away from Catalina?

AVALON — Recent news reports and announcements have indicated Blanche W will no longer set sail from Avalon Harbor in search of flying fish, an activity its captain and passengers engaged in for about 91 years. Fortunately, Catallac out of Afishinados – a more modern vessel– will continue offering tourists and ocean life lovers an opportunity to observe flying fish in its natural habitat just off the shores of Catalina.

No hard data exists to answer the question whether Blanche W is ending its flying fish trips because fewer flyers are found in and around the island. News reports stated the vessel is ending its 91-year flying fish run due to cost constraints.

A question still lingers, however: Are schools of flying fish still frequenting Catalina Island or are they moving elsewhere? Blanche W’s last flying fish trip coincides with the Island’s annual Flying Fish Festival being placed on hiatus a few months earlier.

Flying fish are pelagic and generally live in the open ocean. The warm water fish, which is incapable of sustained flight, generally attach their eggs to seaweed or floating debris. Kelp beds or forests, which, at times, can be abundant just off Catalina’s shores, were commonly believed to be the main reason flying fish frequent the island, as the marine ecosystem offered ideal conditions to spawn and a place to attach eggs.

Several news reports and scientific studies show kelp beds and forests near Catalina, which can live up to seven years and thrive in cold water, have greatly diminished.

KCET reported in November 2014 about 75 percent of the kelp forests off the shores of Palos Verdes Peninsula — about 20 miles away from Catalina — were lost within a 100-year period.

NASA studied kelp forests in the Channel Islands between December 2013 and March 2014. The report showed kelp surrounding San Clemente Island in December 2013. The kelp disappeared by March 2014 because of a rough winter storm.

Kelp forests in between the shores of Los Angeles and Catalina have long been at the mercy of winter storms and warm waters.

Catalina was hit hard with storms in August 2014 and December 2014. Both storms presumably had an adverse impact on kelp beds surrounding the island. Large chunks of kelp were reportedly washing ashore on Orange County Beaches in September 2014.

It is unclear whether the loss of kelp beds in local waters has any impact on spotting flying fish near Catalina (or anywhere else off the Southern California coast).

A Catalina Chamber of Commerce spokesperson said flying fish populations around the island are not necessarily disappearing. The future of Catalina’s annual Flying Fish Festival, however, is up in the air.

The festival ran for seven years from 2008 to 2014 before being placed on hiatus a few months before Blanche W announced the end of its adventurous run. Whether the festival returns to the island in 2016 remains to be seen, a Chamber of Commerce spokesperson said.

“We have not decided on the Flying Fish Festival for 2016 yet,” said Donna Harris, Chamber of Commerce marketing director..

Harris said flying fish can still be found off Catalina, but enthusiasts have to travel farther away from Avalon to find them.

“I don’t know if you can say the population of flying fish is dwindling,” Harris said. “They do mate in the kelp beds in the summer off the shores of Catalina. With the past year’s storms and warmer waters, the kelp beds have not been as thick, or some have not grown much at all, as in years past. The flying fish are still around. We’ve just had to go out farther from Avalon to find them.”

Capt. John King, who offers his catamaran to Avalon’s visitors for flying fish trips, was more optimistic, reporting he found finding flying fish whenever he took customers out to sea and toward Two Harbors.

“Afishinados has had a 1,000 batting average in finding the flyers. The numbers are not much less than last year,” said King, who helm’s Catallac.. “We are also seeing more of them offshore than I can remember, and my buddies are seeing them up north, even as far as Morro Bay. The flyers, like all pelagic fish, move with the currents and with water temps.”

Representatives of Blanche W could not be reached before press time to gain perspective of whether the local flying fish population is thriving or diminishing. Sportfishing companies have reported local waters to be warmer than usual, meaning flying fish should be frequenting the Southern California coast. Then again flying fish, Catalina’s Chamber of Commerce acknowledged on its website, is a wild species, making it difficult to predict sightings.

 “The fish are usually in Catalina Island waters between May and September each year,” a disclaimer statement on the Flying Fish Festival website reads.“[However] there are no guarantees that the fish will be seen on any given flying fish trip.”

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