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Captain’s Log: Ocean Currents Are Changing, and Marine Life Will Feel the Brunt

The sea is going through a change, and this one comes with a hefty price to pay. Natural cycles come and go, and this regime change of currents is one that plays out periodically. It is completely natural. But still, there is going to be a price to pay.

The cold California Current, flowing down the coast from the north, enters the west end of the Santa Barbara Channel and pours chilly water onto the front (north side) of the westerly islands in the chain — San Miguel, Santa Rosa and much of Santa Cruz Island. The good news about this cold water is that it jump-starts the low end of the food chain and promotes kelp forest growth.

A narrower, weaker counter current, the Davidson Current, moves inshore warmer water northward from Baja California. The northward flow of this important current is blocked by our Channel Isles.

A few miles off the back (south) side of Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island is where these powerful currents collide like warring armies. The battle line twists, yields and advances in each direction, over time.

Some small part of the warm water current flows between the islands, and into the east end of the Channel along the coast, but once inside the Santa Barbara Channel, the warm water mixes quickly with the cold water from the north. Our Santa Barbara Channel serves as a major mix-out zone with its own gyre. That is one of the features that makes this area so special.

During El Niño events, the California Current is disrupted, leading to declines in phytoplankton, resulting in cascading effects up the food chain — such as declines in fisheries, seabird breeding failures and marine mammal mortality.

The NOAA and others have warned us that an El Niño event is under way. Big changes are coming to the flora and fauna of our area.

What is commonly seen during these events, which come about roughly once per decade, is warm, clear water with plenty of fish that we rarely see this far north. This gives our local fishing community a much-awaited opportunity for gamefish such as dorado, yellowtail, bonito and barracuda. Some of these fish are caught each year, but El Niño years are special.

After the boom comes the bust. Warm, clear water hurts the low end of the food chain and the impact works its way up the food chain. Most fish and other critters will go through a lean time until cool, upwelling water returns and replenishes the low end of the food chain and sufficient time goes by to feed the entire chain.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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