Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Even modest storms can send fish swimming for safety. Photo by Paul Souders/Corbis
Even modest storms can send fish swimming for safety. Photo by Paul Souders/Corbis

Where Do Fish Go in a Storm?

Pounding rain and whipping winds affect fish, too.

Authored by

by Elizabeth Preston

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Where do fish go in a storm? It’s a weird question to ask, but think about it: just because fish are wet all the time doesn’t mean a rainstorm has no effect. Storms bring waves and choppy water that can make it hard for fish to swim. And changes in light, temperature, and pressure can be uncomfortable, or even dangerous.

Previously, scientists have asked what happens to fish populations after a hurricane. But researchers in Western Australia wondered how fish cope during less catastrophic bad weather.

So how do fish deal with the wind and the waves? On one Australian reef the answer, it seems, depends on the fish—and on how tough they are.

During four bouts of bad weather in 2013, researchers filmed an area of reef near southwestern Australia’s Warnbro Sound as the storms moved through—buffeting and churning the sea. At the same time, environmental loggers tracked the changing weather.

The cameras filmed nearly 1,600 fish from 43 species. As the waves got higher, the number of fish decreased. So did the variety of species swimming past the cameras.

The authors can’t say exactly where the fish disappeared to, but they think they either ducked into the reef for shelter, or swam for calmer waters.

But not all fish behaved the same way. The black-spotted wrasse, for example, was a wimp. Its numbers dropped when waves got higher than about three meters. But the McCulloch’s scalyfin proved to be pretty tough—these fish held their ground until the most severe waves, those above five meters, blew through.

The scientists write that a fish’s body type may determine the conditions it can handle. The McCulloch’s scalyfin has a body well built for maneuvering, so rough waters may not bother it. Being buffeted by a storm may be more energetically draining for smaller or less maneuverable fish, so they’ll hide in a sheltered place.

Many fish are also highly sensitive to temperature and pressure, the authors write, and changes can affect their behavior. And, when storm clouds darken the sky and sap the sea of light, some fish find it hard to hunt or to watch for predators, so, instead, they may seek shelter.

So while we still don’t know where fish go in a storm, we know a little bit about when they go. To learn more, we’re just going to have to find them.