SAN DIEGO —Southern California recreational boaters and fisherman are no strangers to the fall and winter effects of a strong, yet sporadic El Niño to coastal waters.
In an effort to track this climate change, officials from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego are implementing various methods to collect data.
“El Niño’s can alter the jet stream with a persistent, extended Pacific jet stream that tends to move across Southern California and basically brings us more storms when the atmosphere and the ocean couple together,” said Alexander Tardy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Warning Coordination meteorologist. “We would need 150 percent of normal precipitation—statewide— to get us out of the drought or call it a ‘drought buster.’ Past El Niño’s, however, have resulted in variable perception.”
Tardy said the average El Niño produces about 11.82 inches of rain, but the spectrum has ranged from as little as 3.8 inches (2006 to 2007) to as much as 22.47 inches (2004 to 2005). Such events often cause a large variability in seasonal precipitation, especially in years where the El Niño is classified as weak to moderate.
“It started out to be a strong El Niño, then it went to moderate, and now it’s becoming a little less than moderate,” said Julie Thomas, executive director of the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS). “If the predications hold, it probably won’t be a very damaging winter as far as our coastal structures go and it won’t be damaging to the mariners offshore. But maybe we’ll get a little bit of rain out of it.”
At press time, NOAA announced a 70 percent probability of a moderate El Niño during the Northern Hemisphere summer, before increasing to 80 percent during the fall and winter months.
Tracking El Niño
Presently in the region, data is distributed by the SCCOOS. Over the past several years, NOAA-funded SCCOOS has launched underwater devices, known as Spray Gliders, to monitor water temperature and other parameters off Dana Point.
These gliders profile from the surface of the water to 500 to 1,000 meters under water, measuring such physical variables as pressure, temperature and salinity, in an effort to identify climate change.
Feeling the effects
So what does this mean for recreational boaters and fisherman?
Danielle Williams, SCCOOS Outreach coordinator, said the last El Niño in 2010 was labeled as weak to moderate and came with some increased rain and flooding. This year, with the rising temperatures, Williams said recreational fisherman will save on fuel costs as a variety of foreign species have made their way up the coast.
“The buzz around the fishing season this year is very exciting, because we just came off of three years of little to no fishing as far as recreational,” Williams said. “You had to go way down south to get some warm water. The warm water has come up and so have those tropical species. Essentially, the recreational boater doesn’t have to go to Mexico or the far regions of the Pacific to catch a dorado or a yellowtail.”
And while added rain is a concern to sportfishing captains like Rick Oefinger, president of Marina del Rey Sportfishing, the diversity of catches have been satisfying, which include yellowfin and yellowtail.
“We’ve already had this warm water here with yellowfin tuna and bluefin as far up as Long Beach and Catalina, which is just unusual,” Oefinger said. “Maybe it’s here already, but we’re seeing things like sea turtles that we normally don’t see. There are a lot of indicators that something is going on in the ocean right now.”
Oefinger, who has fished the Southern California coast for more than 44 years, said he hopes for an even stronger influx of tropical fish, but recognizes the positives often come with negatives.
“There’s one drawback to El Niño—the warm water,” he said. “While we get a lot of the tropical fish, the warm water isn’t conducive to rockfish spawn. Everything in nature is a ying and yang, so you get the best of one thing to the detriment of something else. The ocean is such a dynamic place. Everything that happens has a reaction. It’s all inter-related one way or another.”
While fishermen fawn at the thought of fresh selections, recreational boaters are suggested to be even more cognizant of the conditions.
Tim Sanders, a yacht captain in San Diego, said in his 20 years in the region he has witnessed just one major El Niño event.
“If it does rain, you have worse visibility. The warm waters also definitely mean more life in the sea to be aware of” he said. “I’m actually selling boats as well, and we’re getting a lot of people looking at fishing boats because of the possibility of El Niño turning up.”
Similarly, Oefinger recommends that boaters implement good practices while heading out to sea during such conditions.
“If you get hit with a big storm, you secure your lines on the boats and make sure everything is in good shape,” he said. “But that’s just good common seamanship, there’s nothing special about that. Sometimes in a strong El Niño, we’ll get rain here for seven, eight days in a row and all the things that accompany it.”