Grunion Runs

Why have I never heard of this? We’ve spent parts of 3 winters in Santa Monica and haven’t come across this chaotic fishing frenzy before.

Last week I posted about the Santa Monica Beach Stories – a public art project that highlights the history of this beach community in Los Angeles. One of the stories is about the strange little fish called California Grunions. I thought catching Grunions by hand was some traditional method used by the indigenous Tongva people. Not so. This is modern day fishing along the Southern California coast and Grunion Run festivities are held throughout the spring in many local beach communities.

Ashland Ave 2 Sig

I thought this was harvested fish not what spawning looks like.

The Grunions have a strange spawning behavior in which they wash up completely on shore. The females burrow partway into the sand to deposit eggs while the males wrap around the females to fertilize the eggs. The behavior is extremely predictable with the fish coming ashore 3-4 nights in a row with the full moon and 2 weeks later with the new moon shortly after high tide. Thing is, they come ashore by the thousands!

To protect the Grunion population, they can only be caught by hand as they wiggle and swarm on the beach. Anyone over 16 must have a fishing license even if they just want to ‘catch and release’ the fish and no fish may be taken during April or May.


Our First Grunion Run

We traveled south to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium near Long Beach for their March Grunion Run – a well attended family event hosted monthly during the season. There is plenty of time to explore the exhibits before high tide at 11:30pm. I really enjoyed the Aquarium itself – here’s a few of the other critters we met.



Everyone has a chance to watch a movie to learn about the Grunion and what they are about to see out on the beach. It’s a great throwback with the 1964 film reminiscent of school films from my childhood days.



The kids in the audience didn’t seem to mind the retro film – the info is still the same.



Our photographer didn’t tell us we were in the wrong fish faces. We learned in the film, females burrow and males wrap.


After the spawning, the fertilized eggs mature in 9-10 days but their hatching is triggered as the tides start getting higher. The incoming waves will agitate the sand surrounding the burrows that were dug near the month’s high tide line. The fish then hatch and are washed out to sea. Funny thing is that the fish will wait to hatch until the waves get high enough. Surviving up to 3 weeks.

After the movie, the aquarium staff distribute small jars of sand populated with grunion eggs and then filled them with ocean water. Swirling the jar mimics the wave action of riding tides – out pop teeny little grunion!



I was a Grunion midwife!


Out to the Beach

After all this learning and experiencing, attendees line up along the beach lit by the full moon. Flashlights are turned off, movement kept to a minimum, and we waited.

March is still fishing season so many of the families arrived with buckets at the ready to hold their catch. Some families wanted to just touch a few fish. Others, like us, were content to watch this crazy event unfold before us.

The Cabrillo Aquarium has been hosting Grunion Runs since 1961. These folks know what they are doing. It wasn’t too long before fish started to show up on the beach. As they begin to collect, a few lights are turned on for just a brief time allowing folks to snap pictures. Then back to darkness.


With Long Beach across the bay, the fish are starting to appear on the shore

With Long Beach across the bay, the fish are starting to appear on the shore



Photo op for all of us spectators


As we continued to wait it was just like 1,000 dogs were sitting with a biscuit on their nose –

wait for it, wait for it… Go! The crowds were released to scramble on the beach collecting fish as they went.



This young boy was letting us see his catch.



This young girl was examining her catch. These Grunions were destined for dinner.



We had a blast learning all about the fish and experiencing the frenzy surrounding the catch. I still can’t believe we didn’t know about this!

Any other folks been on a Grunion Run?