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What California wildlife tells us about ‘Godzilla’ El Niño

While California communities await the worst, El Niño has already had an impact on local wildlife

As West Coast communities brace for what many are calling the “Godzilla” El Niño, scientists are looking beneath the waves to learn more about the upcoming storm season. And if this year’s wildlife anomalies are any indication, this El Niño could be the strongest in decades.

“The whole ecosystem is changing,” said Francisco Chavez, a senior scientist with Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). “The animals are the first to tell us that something is different…[they] are telling us that we’re going to get a relatively big El Niño.”

Here are a few of the surprising changes in the west coast ecosystem documented in recent months.

Death of the crabs

The pelagic red crab is one of the biggest harbingers of El Niño.
America Tonight

The pelagic red crab is only a few inches long, but it’s one of the biggest harbingers of El Niño. The tiny crabs are native to waters off the coast of Mexico, but were recently carried north with El Niño’s warmer currents into Southern California. Over the summer, thousands of red crabs washed ashore, turning several beaches in the area bright red. According to scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, their appearance this far north is rare.

Shark sightings

There has been an increase in shark sightings in Northern California, which some attribute to warmer ocean currents.

Scientists and tourists in Northern California have also noticed an increase in shark sightings. In addition to species native to Baja and Southern California, like hammerheads and mako sharks, large numbers of rare and vulnerable basking sharks have been spotted as far north as Monterey, California.

And in October, the coast guard reported an alarming increase in white sharks feeding near San Francisco. But researchers are quick to point out that white sharks have always fed in and around the Bay Area.

“It’s long been understood that sharks are in the bay it’s just this is the first time this has been documented [on camera],” said Sean Van Sommeran, the executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation.

But Van Sommeran added that changing water temperatures are impacting juvenile white sharks, which are traveling hundreds of miles north of their usual habitat with warmer currents.

“It’s not so much that the population is growing,” Van Sommeran said. “It’s that their center of gravity has moved north.”

Poisonous snakes

The yellow-bellied sea snake, native to tropical waters, has been sighted in Southern California.
Auscape/UIG via Getty Images

El Nino’s warming waters have also been blamed for the appearance of a venomous sea snake that washed onto a Southern California beach in October. The yellow-bellied sea snake is native to Baja California and more tropical waters off Central America. The snake died a few hours after washing ashore, but that was more than enough time to make a lasting impression. 

Toxic seafood

Late season algae blooms are affecting toxin levels in the Dungeness crab population.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While it’s too early to know what impacts El Niño will have on the local economy, there is at least one early example that’s concerning for fishermen and seafood lovers. Warm temperatures are causing larger and longer blooms of algae, whose toxins are occurring in higher than normal levels in the Dungeness crab population. These findings led to a delay in the multimillion-dollar commercial crab season.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

“El Niño is a natural phenomenon it comes and goes,” said Chavez of MBARI. “20 years ago we talked about El Niño as a destructive thing.”

But with California suffering a historic drought, increased rainfall brought on by a powerful El Niño could actually help some parts of the state.

“That’s the two faces of El Niño,” Chavez said. “Depends which side of the coin you’re on to decide if it’s a good or a bad thing.”


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