Dan Nichols was hauling in a gillnet laden with the fruits of a late-season Alaskan salmon run when something heavy flopped out of it, then slid to the front of his boat. "I knew what the tail was," he says. Surprised, the mustachioed fishing veteran stopped picking salmon from his net and approached the itinerant sea creature. "I had to stop what I was doing."
Nichols recognized the skipjack tuna at the bottom of his boat from his time fishing the balmy waters off Southern California and Hawaii. His fish-out-of-tropical-water joined a growing list of examples of locally exotic wildlife showing up in the unusually warm waters that have recently been coursing past the West Coast: A green sea turtle - that venerable visitor to equatorial atolls - was accidentally snagged by fishermen off Northern California. An ocean sunfish was spotted near Prince William Sound, hundreds of miles north of its typical range.
What's been heating up the waters? It's tempting to blame global warming. Sea-surface and nearby coastal air temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have warmed by 1°F or 2°F since 1900. This September, the waters have been as much as 5°F above average. But a study published Monday by the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, which is a project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington, points the climatological finger for most of the change at a different culprit.
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