El Niño’s Effect on Marine Life Goes Beyond Sea Snakes on a Beach

A venomous creature washed up on the shore is only the latest unusual animal to find its way to the California coast.
Yellow-bellied sea snake. (Photo: Facebook)
Oct 18, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Thanks to El Niño, California beachgoers have more to worry about than shark attacks and a deluge of sewage and plastic: Now highly venomous sea snakes are washing ashore too.

On Friday, a surfer found a yellow-bellied sea snake slithering in the sand at Silver Strand beach in Ventura County, about an hour north of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times reports.

It’s the farthest north along the Pacific Coast of North America that the black-and-yellow sea snake Pelamis platurus has ever been spotted and the first time it’s been seen in California since 1985—which was also an El Niño year.

The snake is typically found in warm tropical waters, which, owing to this year’s El Niño conditions, California beaches now provide. The snakes don’t travel well on land, and the captured yellow-bellied snake died in transport to the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office, according to the Times.

El Niños occur every two to seven years, disrupting winter weather across the country. Scientists have linked rising global temperatures to more severe El Niño events. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists this year’s El Niño as one of the strongest on record—and it’s hurting more wildlife than just one scary snake.

A Boon for Fishers, a Bummer for Tropical Fish

A few miles off San Diego, fishers are reeling in exotic fish such as bluefin tuna, yellowtail, and dorado. Though these fish are typically found in Mexico, the four- to five-degree increase in water temperature has created a successful fishing season for Southern California, PBS reports.

Crustacean Crisis

Thousands of crabs found their way to shore in San Diego and Orange County this summer, according to KTLA. Prompted to travel north owing to El Niño–triggered warm weather, the crabs struggle out of water, leaving the beaches coated in dead red crustaceans.

Struggling Seabirds

Seabirds are dying at an alarming rate in Northern California, according to the Sacramento Bee. The International Bird Rescue Center has seen an influx in starved common mures, which typically feast on fish below the surface. The warm waters have pushed the fish deeper into cold waters, and the mures simply can’t reach them.

The Phytoplankton Effect

A host of marine animals feast on phytoplankton, including whales, jellyfish, and shrimp. As El Niño weakens upwelling of cool nutrient-rich water to the ocean surface, the amount of phytoplankton decreases. Because phytoplankton make up the bottom of the ocean’s food web, decreased supplies affect not only the fish that eat them but those animals’ predators as well. The appearance of hammerhead sharks in waters off the California coast in recent months is due to an increased hunt for food sources, mainly smaller fish and squid, according to wildlife experts.