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2024 season for grunion runs is beginning – we’ve got the rules and the tips for you

The wiggly fish get pushed up to the sand by waves for their moonlit spawning ritual, a spectacle that has long lured lookie-loos to the California coastline to get a glimpse at the unique sight.

Sometimes, the grunion are a no-show or just a few fish show up for the fun. But other times, thousands of the tiny, silver fish can blanket the sand, bringing late night excitement to beaches across the region.

Grunion season is getting ready to kick off Sunday, March 10, and happens twice a month through August. But before you head out armed with flashlights, there are new rules and regulations in recent years to be aware of – and we’ve got some tips on where to go and how best to see them in the dark of night.

A fish out of water

The fish don’t just come out from the sea to get fresh air, they are busy making babies.

“We call it the grunion dance,” said naturalist Nona Reimer, a “Grunion Greeter” who helps collect data and educate the public in collaboration with Pepperdine University.

Their arrival is paired perfectly with the new and full moons each month and the coinciding high tides that push their little bodies up the shoreline to spawn on the wet sand.

The females use their tails to borrow into the sand and then the males come up and release a milky milt that goes down the side of the female. She then wiggles out and the next wave covers the hole with sand, allowing the eggs left behind to fertilize.

The eggs sit for about two weeks until the next high tides. When those waves come up and agitate the sand, the eggs hatch and babies are born.

“There’s no other fish that comes up on the sand to lay its eggs,” Reimer said, noting there is another related grunion species in Mexico that comes to shore during the day. “You cannot find this anywhere else in the world. It’s such a unique experience to see the beach covered with this. You don’t know if the beach will be so covered, you can hardly walk– or if there’s just a few.  That’s what keeps you coming back.”

When the people masses do show up, many times they don’t know the rules, or even what the fish are doing on the sand.

“As a Grunion Greeter, I feel it’s my responsibility to tell them what’s actually happening,” Reimer said.  “It’s really a privilege to be down there to try to educate the people.”

There are select months people can take the grunion: March, July and August. Fishing licenses are required for anyone 16 and older.

The other months – April, May, June  – are “closed,” meaning catching the fish is not allowed.

And it’s important not to grab the fish while the female is in the hole, so they can finish the “grunion dance,” Reimer tells people on the beaches.

In addition to June being added in 2022 to the closed months, there’s also a bag limit of 30 grunion per person, said Armand Barilotti, environmental scientists for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“There were signs they were having a decrease in population,” he said. “These measures were put in place to help with that. And it looks like it is helping.”

There have been times Barilotti has seen “thousands, if not millions” completely covering the beach over a half mile section of sand.

“It can be totally spectacular,” he said.

Other nights, he’s been skunked when only a few show up.

“It just depends on what the grunion wants to do,” Barilotti said. “It’s unpredictable. You never know.”

The CDFW teams up with the Grunion Greeter program, which uses a scale to grade how the grunions show up, during how many days, comparing it to 20 years of data.

A dwindling population could have impacts on the ecosystem, Barilotti said. Halibut and white seabass feed on the littler fish, and birds feast on their eggs.

“They are an important species not only for people going out and catching them, but also for the ecology of our area,” he said.



Outdoor education

For a group of students at Cal State Long Beach, the sand and surf is their classroom as they scoop up samples of grunions to study.

They set up a makeshift lab on the sand in the dark of night for the outdoor education experience, taking some back to the class to study.

“We’re very big in involving students in research,” said Darren Johnson, a professor in the department of biological sciences.

The students and researchers analyze the variations in populations and can spawn them in the classroom, controlling which fish mate and how different families respond to differentials in water temperatures.

This year’s season is getting off to an early start, with some sightings already occurring, possibly because of warmer-than-normal water temperatures due to El Nino, but knowing for sure would require more long-term information to compare to past El Nino seasons, Johnson said.

Students go to several different locations during the season with their mobile laboratory.

“It’s very hands-on,” Johnson said, noting that after the fish are spawn, they are released back into the wild.

Unlike other fish species, grunion are “cooperative,” he said, because most of the time you can rely on them showing up on schedule, “which is something you can’t do with a lot of species.”

Popular spots along the coast are Seal Beach, Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro and Doheny State Beach in Dana Point. But they can show up on any beach, preferring a sandy, sloped shoreline.

Some tips Johnson gives: Go during the full moon, it makes it a little easier to see them. Also, avoid using bright headlamps that may scare off the fish.

“You can see them fairly well when you let your eyes adjust,” he said.

Jim Serpa, a retired State Parks ranger who for decades ran a grunion program at Doheny State Beach to help people see the creatures up close, called the phenom “crazy.”

“It’s magical to see these fish come up on land,” he said.

Another tip is to let the scouts – the first fish out scoping out the scene – go unbothered, so they go back to let the others know it’s OK to come to shore, Serpa said.

“That’s the word, you don’t mess with the first ones that come up,” he said. “Then, they know the coast is clear and they can mate.”

And remember to follow the rules – only take when allowed and stick to the bag limit – so the species can continue to thrive and survive, Johnson said.

“It has been shown the past few years that the overall numbers have been in decline,” Johnson said. “It’s hoped the changes in management will get their overall numbers back up to ensure there’s grunion around for a long time.”

Source: Orange County Register

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