Is El Nino over?

or, Did It Really Used To Be Like This?

by Buck Meloy

A personal view of a Copper River fisherman (written before global warming became a global issue)

I have been receiving Dr. David Duffy's El Nino reports this spring. They are compilations of anecdotal and other observations of unusual happenings and conditions around the world that may be El Nino related (by the way, these guys call it ENSO: El Nino Southern Oscillation). You know, things such as:

-- Since last September there has been an unusual almost total absence of the medusae of both species of jellies along the Pacific Coast.

-- ENSO rains in northern Peru have created what is now Peru's second largest lake, in the northern Sechura Desert. President Fujimoro of Peru estimated its size as 25 x 185 miles and 33 feet deep.

-- Sea elephant and sea lion pups have experienced heavy (perhaps 90%) mortality in California.

-- Unseasonal and unusual epidemics of cholera, dengue fever, and hantavirus have occurred in many countries.

I know what the doc is talking about given what has been going on in Cordova and on the Copper River Flats, where I fish from mid-May to mid-September, every season. The last 6 years here have seen the mildest weather and warmest temperatures in my experience (which goes back only to 1982). Last year, the Gulf of Alaska was warm enough to swim in, exceeding 60 degrees for much of the late summer. Personally, I chose not to take advantage of this opportunity because I am not familiar with the dietary habits of the large salmon sharks that have also been present in unusual abundance.

Since my thermometer measures only surface temperature, I also assumed that the water would be colder a short distance down, like it always was in the midwestern lakes I swam in as a child back in the Pleistocene. Not so, say Gulf divers, whose reports from Middleton Island and the deep off Seward indicate that the warming reaches hundreds of feet, at least in those places.

Apparent additional side effects of El Ninoesque conditions in this vicinity are unusually large returns of Copper River sockeye each spring, no snowbanks to dig through to extricate one's boat from storage, one-third less annual precipitation (unofficially down to a meager 128 average annual inches in the last five years), unusually warm and sunny summers, and, perhaps most importantly to the Cordova salmon fleet, a near-absence of spring and summer storms which had always made the fishery a notoriously dangerous and difficult one.

All of that may now be over. Though this past winter was mild, April saw one storm after another blow through. High winds and heavy rains kept early halibutters and blackcodders in port for most of the month. One skipper reported to me that he was able to fish only 5 days in April due to the weather.

And it hasn't let up. The season's first 24-hour period on the Flats began on May 14, during a brief lull. By the time the period closed, it was blowing a steady 50 and at least two of the fleet's 500 gillnetters had to be towed to safety as conditions deteriorated.

The gale warning issued before the 2nd period, which began at 7am on May 18, failed to deter many fishermen from pursuing their occupation, since the predicted winds had failed to materialize prior to the opening. Besides, we have a long history of inaccurate weather forecasting here. Unfortunately, the wind did begin picking up, after most nets were already in the water, and the forecast was soon updated to a storm warning, with 50-knot southeast winds and 24-foot seas. It was blowing only 40 when I picked up my second set, but a significant ocean swell had just arrived, indicating that the forecast could well be correct. And I had just seen the tiny (24') bowpicker Sara B, apparently powerless, being towed past me by the much larger converted purse-seiner Monde Uni. With the Monde out of sight behind the next swell, I watched as the Sara B stood nearly vertical as she rose up to the crest, and then pitch forward and down the other side, only her transom with a little of her bottom showing briefly before she disappeared entirely. Staring intently, I was relieved to see that both vessels were still there when they each crested on separate swells a moment later.

Knowing I couldn't travel safely with loose fish on my deck, I pitched them into the hold, then ran inside to ask the Monde Uni if they could use any help. The skipper requested that I get behind him to keep an eye on the Sara B as he could not see her, except infrequently, from his cabin. I would have done so, but I could no longer see them at all, even though they were certainly nearby. When another vessel found them, I gave up looking and began heading towards Egg Channel myself, seeking the welcome protection from the heavy seas that would be found beyond it.

The Coast Guard helicopter had been circling my vicinity for some time, in response to the Sara B situation. Soon it was needed elsewhere as a mayday had been received from a vessel off Kokenhenik Bar whose pumps had failed and was taking on water. After dropping him a pump, the copter was summoned to Softuk Bar where two vessels had reportedly been blown up on the beach. Not much later, a Coast Guard C-130 showed up, apparently in response to the number of distress calls and deteriorating weather.

My trip to Egg Island on the Spindrift III was relatively uneventful, unusual in that I was only III of infinite spindrift in my vicinity. The bar crossing raised most of the hairs I have left on my head, but I was soon anchored behind a sandbar where the steady 50-knot breeze was not particularly troublesome.

Shortly thereafter, the Sara B arrived safely in tow, the Monde Uni having taken a slightly longer but much less treacherous route than I had. The Sara B's skipper was still on his bow, in his survival suit, which had been the only prudent place for him to ride under the circumstances.

A call from the Killer Frog came on the VHF that a Russian's bowpicker was dead in the water at Strawberry Bar, 7 miles further west, and that he was drifting through breakers that made him unreachable by would-be rescuers. As the chopper headed his way, somebody on the water finally managed to get a line on him and drag him in to safety.

The Coast Guard buoytender Sweetbrier had been dispatched from Cordova to assist, and arrived in time to locate the F/V Predator, who was dead in the water somewhere off Egg Island. By dusk, 4 additional gillnetters who had failed to make it inside the bars before the weather and ebbing tide closed them completely joined the Sweetbrier and were escorted 30 miles to Hinchinbrook Entrance where they finally found shelter in Port Etches in the morning. A small boat crew from the Sweetbrier braved 20-foot seas to deliver fuel to one of them who had to have it to make the journey.

There may have been other rescues and close calls as well, unknown to me, but this was the worst rash of near-disasters that the Flats has seen since warmer water started arriving from the south 6 years ago. Thanks to the bravery of Coast Guard crewmen and some gillnet skippers, no lives were lost.

So is El Nino over? I don't know. In fact, given that the real historical anomoly is 200 years of relatively stable weather, we are likely to see stranger things yet. But, at least as far as the Copper River Flats goes, this is stacking up to be, for a change, a "normal" year.

copyright '98, Buck Meloy

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