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Experts baffled by sightings of tropical fish in Washington state’s waters — here’s what may have drawn them there

It’s worth asking: why now?

It’s worth asking: why now?

Photo Credit: iStock

Washington state is known for its cold ocean waters and is normally home to zero types of tropical fish. However, changes to the weather seem to have resulted in more tropical fish sightings along the Washington coast, confusing locals and experts alike.

What is happening?

Several types of fish have recently made their first recorded appearances off the Washington coast, including tropical species and other species that prefer warmer waters. Species spotted in 2023 have included mola mola (also known as the ocean sunfish), mahi-mahi (or dolphin fish), bluefin tuna, and lancetfish. 

Although locals and experts have expressed confusion about how these fish ended up so far from home, the consensus seems to be that they were likely attracted by El Niño conditions, during which water temperatures rise in the Pacific Ocean by three to five degrees Fahrenheit on average, per Nasa.

However, as previous El Niños have not brought these species to Washington state, it’s worth asking: why now?

Why now?

One big reason that we are seeing more tropical fish in places where they are not supposed to be — similar sightings have been reported on the opposite coast as well — is that ocean water temperatures are rising across the globe due to the effects of human-caused pollution.

The combination of those rising temperatures and the El Niño conditions results in even warmer water.

Climate change is leading to rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns throughout the Northwest,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture writes. “The interaction between climate change and El Niño is not completely understood, but El Niño could temporarily exacerbate the warming effects of climate change and contribute to events like droughts, wildfires, and marine heat waves.”

These rising temperatures and changing weather patterns have far worse effects than people getting to see a new type of fish.  

“A changing climate is already affecting Washington state’s fish and wildlife resources. Increasing stream temperatures and low summer flows have resulted in fish die-offs and fishing closures along our rivers,” the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports.

What is being done about it?

The WDFW lays out two steps that must be taken to combat the challenges of a changing climate. The first is building resilience and preparing for the impacts of extreme weather and rising temperatures. The second is halting the overheating of our planet by reducing our output of warming gases, such as the ones produced by burning dirty energy sources like oil and gas.

If you want to help combat extreme weather and rising temperatures, consider getting involved at the community level and making lifestyle choices that don’t contribute to global overheating.

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