Initial Publication Date: August 12, 2008

Hot Topic: Effects of Climate Variability on Fisheries

Part A: Short Term Variability: El Niño

El Niño is an abnormal warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific that occurs approximately every 3 to 7 years. The phenomenon was named El Niño (meaning "The Boy Child" or "The Christ Child") by South American fishermen because it typically arrives around Christmastime.

Under normal conditions, east-to-west winds drag warm waters westward. This results in a pile-up of warm water in the western Pacific, just east of Indonesia, and northeast of Australia. At the same time, cold water from deep in the ocean rises to the surface along the South American Coast.

Every few years, the trade winds change direction. This allows the pool of warm water to move eastward, where it blocks the rising cold water. These changes help trigger the global weather changes associated with El Niño.

1. Watch this brief video to learn more about El Niño.

If the video doesn't play, visit the Met Office

The oscillating warming and cooling pattern described in the video is referred to as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation or ENSO cycle. This cycle directly affects rainfall distribution in the tropics and can have a strong influence on weather across the United States and other parts of the world. El Niño and La Niña are the extreme phases of the ENSO cycle; between these two phases is a third phase called non-El Niño or ENSO-neutral.

The images below show the direction of trade winds (yellow arrows) and the location of warm ocean waters (red) under normal ocean conditions (left) and during an El Niño event (right).

Image Source: NOAA (and USA Today( Graphic by John Herne.
Image Source: NOAA (via USA Today ( by John Herne.

2. Read more about and compare ocean conditions during a normal year and an El Niño event.

Checking In

Answer the following questions to check your understanding of conditions affected by El Niño.

  • What is the role of upwelling along the South American coast?
  • Why are the waters warmer and deeper in the western Pacific than they are in the eastern Pacific during a normal/non-El Niño year?
  • How does El Niño alter weather patterns?

3. Examine the graph below of California squid landings from 1940-2018. The blue bars show the years in which particularly strong El Niño events occurred.


Click here to learn more about California Market Squid.

Checking In

Answer the following questions to check your understanding of the information provided in the graph of California squid landings.

  • How were squid catches affected by El Niño between 1950 and 2018?
  • Do the effects of El Niño on California squid appear to be permanent?


Stop and Think

1: Squid has only recently become a commercially important seafood. Explain how other species with long histories of commercial fishing and economic importance might be affected by an El Niño event.

Scientists are trying to determine if squid populations have a positive reaction during La Niña, which is considered the opposite cycle to El Niño. Strong La Niña conditions occurred in 1999-2000 and 2010-2011 and squid landings during those times reached new highs. Read the following to learn more about What is La Niña.

Checking In

Why might market squid landings increase during La Niña conditions?


Optional Extensions

Meet The Blob - a new warm ocean phenomena

A Video News Report of The Blob

Octopus and Squid Populations are Booming - Here's Why

Good Luck Eating Local Calamari

Market squid tell a tale of two krill

Listen to this 15-minute podcast from NOAA: Tracking El Nino and its Effects on Life in the Ocean, an interview with two top scientists

Video Animation reveals ocean's role in El Niños

Video Effects of El Niño/La Niña on Phytoplankton and fish