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A Current Event : The warm waters of El Nino have had good effects and bad. While fishermen have a field day, biologists worry about the future.


Traveling up and down the Southern California coast, marine biologist Ron McPeak has seen more than his fair share of sea creatures: the long-tentacled varieties that hover below the water's surface, the brightly colored types that dart in and out of kelp beds, the shelled denizens of the deep that crawl along the rocky bottom.

But none has evoked quite the response in McPeak as the sea-loving species he came across not long ago: the T-shirted people clustered on the shore.

"They walk around with T-shirts that say, 'Hooray! The 1992 El Nino is here!"' he said. "They gather with their poles on the piers."

McPeak, who works at Kelco, a kelp harvesting company based in San Diego, has an altogether more sedate opinion of El Nino, the warm ocean current from the Equator that pushes up the California coast about once a decade.

But what struck him most about the T-shirt message was its unabashed enthusiasm.

"Obviously," he said, "how people feel about El Nino depends on their point of view."

For sportsmen, this year's El Nino has been a blessing, bringing with it schools of fish that probably don't know this is Ventura County and not Mexico. Ocean swimmers and surfers have been treated to water that in some places has reached 72 degrees. Whale watchers have been treated to rare glimpses of marine mammoths off the Channel Islands.

But for businesses such as Kelco, which rely on temperate waters to stay financially afloat, the rising marine thermometers are being watched with the wariness of a homeowner who sees a wildfire making its way over the next ridge.

For those firms--as well as marine researchers who worry about the warmer water's negative effect on several species of marine life--El Nino holds the potential for disaster.

"We already know from experience that an El Nino can be devastating," said McPeak, who makes regular aerial inspections of kelp beds from San Diego to Monterey. "This year we've been lucky."

Gary Davis, a marine biologist with the Channel Islands National Park, hopes the luck will continue. But leaving the ocean's fate up to Providence, he says, isn't enough.

"El Ninos . . . have been around for millenia, and the ocean has apparently always recovered quite nicely from them. But what we're doing now is trying to look at the bigger picture," said Davis, glancing out his office window to the sand-bordered, gray-blue panorama.

"Human activities are reducing the resiliency and stability of ecosystems. . . . Things like pollution and over-harvesting (of the ocean) weaken the system's ability to respond to an event like El Nino.

"And if we're not careful, if we keep on doing what we've been doing," he said, "the next El Nino could push a lot of species over the edge."

Down the coast just a ways, at the Channel Island Sportfishing Center in Oxnard, gulls screech as they swoop down, their feet extended, and land beside passenger-laden charter boats preparing to head out for the day.

Here, news of El Nino--and the gifts it has brought--has been greeted with open arms and baited hooks. Sportfishermen like Pat Gray, who works in the tackle shop, use a tone generally reserved for religious experiences to describe the influx of fish that normally make their home in the tropical waters to the south.

Even temporarily losing some species like salmon, which have headed north in search of cooler waters, doesn't bother enthusiasts like Gray; it is a small price, he says, to pay for what's out there now.

"We've had some yellowtail, some bonito and some giant sea bass that were really big," Gray said. "I don't know exactly how big, but we're talking huge. They're all pretty rare around here."

Skippers on board the charter boats of Island Packers in Ventura also have reported unusual sightings. "Barracuda has been good since April because the water warmed rapidly to about 68 degrees," said Island Packers' co-owner Mark Connally.

"The warmer water also brings a lot more flying fish into the area. We've gone for years without seeing them." Some marine biologists have speculated that the warmest period of this year's El Nino may now be coming to an end, and that the waters off the coast once again are cooling to normal by the upwelling of colder water from the ocean floor. Connally isn't so sure.

"Researchers have different statements about when it (El Nino) started, when it will end or if we're still having an El Nino now," he said. "But we just go by the different things that we don't normally see.

"If it's weird, we say it's because of El Nino."

Gray, on the other hand, has his own sources of information.

"From what I've heard, the El Nino hasn't kicked in full yet," he said. "We're expecting a bunch of blue fin and dorado and a lot of tuna. Tuna would be so great. El Nino just makes everything that much better. I can't wait."

But Gray's vision of fish, no matter how huge, probably pales in comparison to what some other charter boat passengers--their fishing poles left wisely at home--already have spotted around the Channel Islands.

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