Strange Fish in Weird Places with Paulina Salinas-Ruiz

  • Finescale triggerfish, Balistes polylepis, spotted at Breakwater Wall

By Gayle Hudson

At our October meeting, we were delighted to hear a presentation from Paulina Salinas-Ruiz, an Applied Marine & Watershed Science M.S. graduate student at California State University Monterey Bay.

She is working on a project in collaboration with Dr. James Lindholm which addresses fish and invertebrates that are migrating north up the west coast where they are not considered an indigenous species.

Paulina told us she was born in Mexico City and her father was an avid scuba diver, getting her involved in the sport at a young age.  He took her to Cozumel every year, where she witnessed environmental changes that helped define her career goals.

She began her presentation with an example of her previous work involving an invasive species, Sargassum horneri, which has flourished on the island of Catalina and pushed out the giant kelp forests which were suffering due to warming temperatures.  The Santa Barbara region usually experiences temperatures in the high 50s but it went to the high 70s this past July and August.

Sargassum Horneri before and after

Sargassum Horneri before and after

Paulina worked with scientists who tried to remove the sargassum with a ‘super sucker’ vacuum machine.  They removed nine metric tons and kept monitoring the growth, but it returned.  The sargassum invasion cannot be stopped. This species is from Japan where it traveled in the ballast water of a ship in 2006 and Paulina began studying it in 2014. In Japan, sargassum has natural predators, but there are none along the west coast.  Scientists have tried to get urchins and turban snails interested in the species but Paulina said “…they would rather starve to death” than consume sargassum.

Climate events like ‘The Blob’ and El Nino have enabled species dwelling in warmer waters to migrate north along the California Coast. The Blob was first detected in late 2013, spread until 2015, and persisted into 2016.  The waters of the Blob have adversely affected marine life and offer very little nutrients.

Fishes traditionally only seen in Mexico are now migrating to Southern California and Southern California fishes are now being found in Northern California.  Paulina explained when ocean temperatures got cold again migrating species would die off or disappear, but now they are surviving as ocean temperatures rise.  These species are now spawning and have the potential to change the entire ecosystem along the west coast.

Fishes spotted in areas where they are not indigenous includes a Goldspotted sand bass, commonly found from Cedros Island southward along the central and southwest coasts of Baja California, Mexico.  It was c­­aught in Santa Barbara in early August, 2018, 470 miles north of its normal habitat.

In Monterey, an adult male California Sheepshead, normally found from the Isle of Guadalupe to Santa Barbara, was photographed at North Monastery.  Paulina says now every time she dives at Breakwater or MacAbee she now spots a male or female.  Spiny lobsters are not found north of Point Conception but recently, a few hundred miles of its normal territory, one was photographed at North Monastery.  An incredible catch by a fishing boat in Crescent City was a Yellowtail (Seriola quinqueradiata) and Mahi Mahi (Coryphaena hippurus) normally indigenous to Baja California, Mexico.  Paulina believes they cycled after El Nino but are now establishing in these new areas because, as ocean temperatures rise, babies can survive.

Paulina hopes her work will be an eye-opener so fisherman can adjust catches, invasive species can be addressed, and resource managers can take early action.

The challenge in documenting this migration is the limited resources, opportunities, and observers who can photograph these species through crowd sourcing, Paulina is hoping to gather data to further research on these migrations. Divers and fishermen can help by taking a photo or video and filling out a form that has been posted at the CSUMB website.  There is no need to register and Paulina’s team will double-check everything so don’t worry about your submission.  Those who would like credit should attach their name or you can remain anonymous.

Gold-spotted Sand Bass

Gold-spotted Sand Bass

Yellowtail and Mahi Mahi found in Crescent City, CA

Yellowtail and Mahi Mahi found in Crescent City, CA

California Sheep Head spotted in South Monastery Beach

California Sheep Head spotted in South Monastery Beach

California spiny lobster found at North Monastery

California spiny lobster found at North Monastery

The information requested included date and time of observation, depth (if collected via SCUBA or breath-hold diving), species ID (lowest taxonomic level possible), coordinates and/or general location.  Paulina has contacted all the dive shops, clubs, fishing operations, landings, and researchers and has received a lot of photos from fishermen and some beach photos.

In the Q & A session that followed, Paulina confirmed she has been in touch with Reef Check but all their data is written and her project requires imagery.  David Chevrin commented he saw a post at Scuba Forum where a lobster was spotted on Breakwater wall.

We thank Paulina Salinas-Ruiz for her fascinating presentation and will be looking for Strange Fish in Weird Places!