Pepperdine professor studies mysterious grunion

A large-scale project is in the works to learn more about the slender, silvery fish.

By Michelle Salzman/Special to The Malibu Times

In an undertaking that has not occurred in more than 50 years, Pepperdine professor of biology and grunion expert Dr. Karen Martin will be conducting a large-scale research project on California’s grunion population. Martin’s plan is to take a systematic survey of the grunion population with help from organizations from San Diego to Santa Barbara, leading teams of volunteers called “Grunion Greeters” to learn more about the enigmatic fish.

The grunion is a slender, silvery fish found along the coast of southern California down into Baja California. The fish are a bit of a mystery since they can only be observed during their spawning season when they leave the water to deposit their eggs in the wet sand. Males strand themselves upon the shore and wait for females to lay their eggs so they can fertilize them. Spawning season can extend from March until September, with spawning runs corresponding to each full or new moon. They usually occur for about three nights after the highest tide and last roughly two hours after the evening’s high tide, close to midnight.

Sponsors for the project include Santa Barbara Channel Keepers, Pepperdine University in Malibu, Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, Surfrider Foundation in Orange County and Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, and all will host workshops training volunteers on how to collect information about the grunion. At the workshops, Martin explained, “we tell people about grunion biology and some of the really interesting things about this fish, which occurs nowhere else in the world. We give them some specific instructions about where we want them to be and what time.”

Volunteers will be collecting data about specific runs assessing the approximate number of grunion, how much area the fish covered during a run and the amount of time the fish spent on the shoreline.

Although the grunion runs are generally predictable, Martin said, “You don’t always see [the grunion] even when you’re doing everything right. It seems like the right night but they don’t always show up. So whenever we see them, we’re always delighted. The reality is they show up when they want to show up.”

The volunteers will be observing runs based on the nights most likely to have good runs. “We’re picking the particular dates that we think are the most likely for good grunion runs so we’re maximizing the opportunity for people to have successful viewing,” Martin said.

Martin gave advice for those who would like to view a grunion run. “This is wildlife. Just imagine that you were trying to watch for birds or watch for deer or any other wildlife. How would you behave? Behave that way. You’ll have much better fortune,” she said, adding, “I think that everyone should experience a grunion run.”

In the past two years, Martin and her research team conducted studies in San Diego on beach maintenance procedures and their effect on grunion. The beach maintenance teams are supposed to stay above the high tide mark when performing their routine beach grooming, but since teams did not know much about the grunion, this procedure wasn’t always effectively maintained. After the study in San Diego, beach maintenance teams were informed on the importance of following protocol and have become “experts” on grunion, according to Martin. “I feel like it’s a real positive thing that the beach maintenance organizations are very aware of the grunion and they want to do what they can,” Martin said.

The current study will focus on runs occurring from April to mid June. Volunteers will go out for observation on 10 nights to record information for the survey.

Of the grunion run experience, Martin said, “I do really think it is a natural wonder and I think that it is something that is sort of miraculous and wonderful. People should appreciate it even if they don’t want to get up in the middle of the night. Just to know it is happening while you’re sleeping is pretty wonderful.”

More information about volunteering as a Grunion Greeter can be obtained by visiting the Web site,

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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