Ocean sunfish are normally found in tropical and temperate waters — but they have been showing up off BC’s west coast. Photo: Wikipedia

Ocean sunfish are normally found in tropical and temperate waters — but they have been showing up off BC’s west coast. Photo: Wikipedia

COLUMN: Will Vancouver Island become home to tropical species?

Warming winter waters off BC’s coast has resulted in some previously unusual fish sightings

By Ronja Perner and Travis Hoogland

It is time for your annual family trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island. You are having a nice relaxing time reading a book while sitting on your fishing boat. It is an activity you have done many times before on your previous trips.

Everything feels familiar until suddenly a grey pancake the size of your car goes floating by. It startles you, because in all the years you have visited this spot you have never seen anything like this before. Curious, you take a closer look. To your surprise you realize it is a living creature. That creature is known as a sunfish or a Mola mola.

The sunfish is the largest bony fish reaching up to 14 feet (4.2 meters) tall and 10 feet (three meters) long (they have long dorsal and anal fins that make them taller than they are long) and weigh up to 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg). They have an unusual body shape that looks like a giant head attached directly to a tail with no real body, giving them a silhouette of a flattened bullet. They have long fins coming off the top and bottom.

They can often be seen floating at the surface on their side, warming their body after deep dives. They do deep dives, up to 200 meters down, to prey on jellyfish and zooplankton. Despite their size they are not a threat to humans, although they can be very curious and might come and check you out.

So true they are a strange looking fish, but more importantly, they are not supposed to be here! Sunfish are traditionally found in warmer waters in tropical climates. In the last number of years, we have been experiencing warmer ocean water temperatures off our coast. The tropical fish are simply following the warmer waters. Right now a patch of warm water known as “The Blob” is off the west coast of North America.

These warm waters are a natural occurrence during the summer months as a part of the ocean currents. The water is warmed up at the tropics and is then moved out towards the poles. This warm water would traditionally be broken up by large storms and wind events that coincided with the frigid Arctic winters. But the reason the warm water is not being broken up is because Arctic winters have been milder than usual, meaning less severe storm and wind events.

The warmer winters mean the water on BC’s west coast is staying slightly warmer than usual and thus allowing for marine life adapted to tropical climates to move in. Not all species like the warmer waters. Some like salmon evolved in cooler waters. Just at the tropical species follow the warm water, so will the cool adapted species follow the cold water and likely move further north.

The effects of this habitat shift is unknown. Will it simply be a move to a new habitat or will it be so disruptive to cause damage to the fish stocks? The results of this potential shift will not only affect the West Coast but also the communities and wildlife that live up the rivers and rely on species such as salmon for food as well as industry.

What exactly will happen to Vancouver Island’s ecosystem might be difficult to predict as it is influenced by so many factors. Almost certain, however, seems to be that we will all be facing changes in the natural world. Thanks to their peculiar appearance, the sunfish off the shore of Vancouver Island is just one obvious indicator.

Ronja Perner and Travis Hoogland are second year recreation, fish, and wildlife students at Selkirk College in Castlegar.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here


COLUMN: Will Vancouver Island become home to tropical species?

Just Posted

Crews retrieved the overturned commercial truck from the crash scene on Friday, Nov. 20. Photo: Betsy Kline
UPDATE: Kootenay woman dies in Genelle collision

The incident occurred Thursday, Nov. 19.

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
104 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

IH is reporting the new numbers since Friday, Nov. 20

Photo: Trail Times
Castlegar man and woman arrested in downtown Trail

Police allege the truck they were in had a stolen licence plate on the rear

USA Today ranked the City of Rossland as it’s top Canadian ski town, and no. 2 in all of North America, while Nelson was ranked no. 10 overall. Photo: Jim Bailey.
Rossland and Nelson rank among top North American ski towns

USA Today ranked two West Kootenay communities among Top 10 Ski Towns in North America

Trail RCMP seized illicit drugs, cash and a weapon following a traffic stop in West Trail on Nov. 18. Photo: Trail RCMP
West Kootenay man, woman face drug charges after traffic stop

Police report that three types of illicit drugs were seized as well as cash and a Taser

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Forty-one positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested for refusing to wear mask at Kelowna Value Village

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, November 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-19: What do rising positivity rates mean for B.C.? It’s not entirely clear

Coronavirus cases are on the rise but the province has not unveiled clear thresholds for further measures

Most Read