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'When they come up, the female [grunion] actually spiral down like a drill into the sand and lay their eggs in the sand, and the males drop the milt, or sperm, onto the eggs," says Birch Aquarium executive director Nigella Hillgarth. "It may only take thirty seconds, but some [fish] stay on the beach for several minutes." On Sunday, May 28, the Birch Aquarium will host Grunion Run Fun, a lecture and film followed by a guided exploration of the beach where grunion are expected to spawn. In the past, grunion have been found on areas of Solana Beach, Del Mar, La Jolla Shores, and Pacific Beach. Scientists can predict general areas where the fish may appear based on tide information, but no one location for spawning seems to be consistently popular among the grunion. This species of fish is only found off the West Coast from Baja California to Point Conception, which is about 50 miles north of Santa Barbara.

It is not legal for people over age 16 to catch grunion unless they have obtained a fishing license. "We encourage people to be naturalists," says Hillgarth. "I don't think we've ever had anyone come [to one of our events] with a license. Most people come with their families and stand quietly on the beach to see [the grunion], which, to me, is as exciting as whale watching."

The Department of Fish and Game stipulates that sport fishers may use only their hands to capture grunion. At most sites, spawning grunion number in the hundreds to thousands. But, advises the Department of Fish and Game, "Despite local concentrations, grunion are not abundant," and they are not sold commercially.

"We're all a bit worried about the future of the grunion, though they're not endangered at the moment," says Hillgarth. "A lot of things could affect them very easily, like beach erosion and pollution. If they can't lay their eggs in a decent place, then that's a problem." Fertilized eggs remain in the sand for two weeks, or until the next high tide. The fish are able to spawn at the end of their first year.

"Grunion eggs can survive in dried sand for several months," Hillgarth explains. "All that is needed to activate them, which is what happens during high tide, is movement in the water that causes [the eggs] to break open." It is difficult to spot the tiny, newly hatched grunion. "They're minuscule, like the size of a pinhead."

The Department of Fish and Game explains how, like sea monkeys, grunion eggs can be hatched at home "by collecting a cluster of eggs after a grunion run [any clump of sand from the spawning area should contain eggs] and keeping them in a loosely covered container of damp sand in a cool spot for 10 to 15 days. Then add one teaspoon of sand and eggs to one cup of sea water and shake gently; the eggs will hatch before your eyes in a few minutes."

Grunion can grow up to eight inches in length and live for up to three years. Because they are not sold commercially, you will never find them in a restaurant. However, sport fishers do eat them. Grunion, which taste like smelt, can be prepared like any other fish. A recipe for "Grunion and String Bean Parcel" suggests cooking the fish and beans inside a foil roasting bag with butter and spices. According to beachcalifornia.com, grunion can be baked or fried but "are best used...in a green bean casserole."

Open season for grunion begins in March and ends in August, but is closed April through May in accordance with a regulation passed in 1947 to protect the fish during those peak spawning months. The time at which grunion appear on the beaches varies from night to night, depending on the tides. Grunion runs occur on the first four nights of either a full moon or a new moon. According to the Department of Fish and Game's chart, spawning on May 27 is expected between 9:45 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. and the following evening from 10:25 p.m. to 12:25 a.m. When they are not spawning, these nonmigratory fish swim fairly close to shore and rarely go beyond 60 feet in depth.

According to the volunteer group known as the Grunion Greeters, poachers (the term includes licensed anglers using anything other than their hands) have been seen using gear like nets to catch grunion. Grunion Greeters strongly encourage catch and release and requests (as does the Department of Fish and Game) that people take only those fish they themselves will consume. Hillgarth maintains, however, "The human side of catching grunion is only a problem when added to all of the effects of pollution and erosion." -- Barbarella

Grunion Run Fun with the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Sunday, May 28 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Reservations are required: Please call the aquarium at 858-534-7336 Cost: $12 adults; $9 children 6 to 13 Info: 858-534-7336 or aquarium.ucsd.edu

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