Oroville fish fall remains a mystery

A new and interesting “fish fall” report comes out of Oroville, California this week. News stories conflict about what actually happened but here is the best report from a local news team.

According to witnesses at the Stanford Avenue Elementary school in Oroville, just before noon, teachers and children noticed the playground area was strewn with small dead fish. The school administration had a person check the roof to determine if the fish had fallen and he reported “dozens” on the roof. But no one saw the fish actually fall. The reporter for this story followed up with the nearby fish hatchery who said they had no delivery of fish that could account for it. But they believed it was a type of carp found in the bay, but not the nearby Feather River. So how the fish got there remains mysterious. But there are curious problems with this story that often crop up with such bizarre reports.

I could find no reference that any samples were collected to determine the type of fish. But they do not seem to be unusual and there are many potential sources for the fish – the Oroville reservoir, rivers, bays and streams, and a local hatchery.

The timing of the event is unclear. The on-scene report says:

It started out a typical Tuesday at Stanford Avenue Elementary school … then just before noon, the campus was suddenly littered with fish.

A later report from the same team says it must have happened overnight because staff noticed it Tuesday morning. And, there is this curious bit:

But then, it started to rain fish again during school classes and recess, according to the schools librarian, Rachael Thompson.

No one got a video. There were no security cameras that report capturing anything odd. And the neighbors haven’t contributed any corroboration in public. It’s explicitly noted by the on-scene reporter that no one saw them fall. So the report that it rained fish twice may be a misquote or misunderstanding. These mistakes get propagated leading people to assume something was observed when it wasn’t.

Some reporting automatically linked in the above story to a “cloud” that passed over. This also looks to be an assumption. There is no documentation for any storm event strong enough to do this. A Sacramento meteorologist says that there were some clouds and possible thunderstorms during this time that might account for some surface fish being blown a half-mile or so to the east from their water source. But this is still speculation. (Unfortunately, this station’s radar was out so they have no record of precipitation.)

So, it is NOT clear when this exactly happened. The photographs are not even good and there was no available documentation of the extent of the fish fall. I’ve seen rumors that fish were found around the area, just not on the school campus, but this is all uncertain. The fish on the grass are in one piece but it’s odd that fish that landed on the hard surfaces are relatively intact. Could they have been frozen? Or was the fall not that far?

I’m not convinced by the wind/waterspout idea of moving fish. It’s never been documented well enough to determine this mechanism really works. And, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (I’d love to see it demonstrated. If you know of this type of demo, please write to the editor.) Other explanations that have undoubtedly occurred elsewhere among the hundreds of similar reports include fish falling out of transport vehicles, fish swimming across land during flooding rains, birds dropping fish while flying. In this case, with the observation (though unchecked, but this seems to be legit) that fish were actually on the roof, it does seem that they fell from the air. There were too many (over 60) to reasonably conclude they were dropped by birds. So we are left with a prank (very unlikely), that the fish fell from a stocking plane (yes, they do this) or that some atmospheric mechanism really did transport the fish up and then drop them.

It’s a shame we don’t have a more careful examination of these events. Instead, we have sloppy collections of eyewitness accounts. I’d be out there mapping and taking samples and measuring. It would help to get to the bottom of this very Fortean occurrence. I hope the Department of Fish and Wildlife office can provide some additional followup to this story. I just don’t want to believe, I want to know.

Thanks to Paul Cropper on Group of Fort for tip.

UPDATE: Factors seem to point towards a prank. First, why aren’t the fish splattered if they fell from a height? Second, I still have no confirmation from nearby properties. The eyewitness testimony is still iffy, and the waterspout theory, touted by more than one meteorologist as being “plausible,” remains unfounded and implausible. So this story still stinks.

Additional information or comments can be sent to editor@sharonahill.com. Follow on Twitter: @doubtfulnews

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST “15 Credibility Street” for more discussion on this and other news items.

  17 comments for “Oroville fish fall remains a mystery

  1. May 19, 2017 at 7:24 PM

    There is no plausibility to the waterspout “theory”. Waterspouts do not have any mechanism for lifting anything, not even water. Neither have clouds ever been associated with fish.

    There are, however, at least 42 species of fish that walk overland, many of which look like regular fish, and are responsible for the vast majority of these reports. I don’t recognize the species shown in these pictures, and I’d bet on this being a prank before anything else.

  2. idoubtit
    May 19, 2017 at 9:17 PM

    And… no one saw a waterspout in this case. It seems there were not conditions strong enough to form a tornado. So, I am not happy with the meteorologists that have been saying it’s “plausible”.

  3. Christine Rose
    May 20, 2017 at 9:11 AM

    I don’t think a prank is unlikely. Someone had some fish they didn’t want for some reason and decided to throw them at an elementary school. Quite possibly it was a student or former student. Maybe the fish had been in a freezer for a year. Maybe someone was moving and realized they weren’t going to take all those fish with them. It’s only unlikely in the sense that most of us don’t end up with 60 old fish in our freezers.

  4. Donna
    May 21, 2017 at 3:23 AM

    This happened in a nearby town years ago. I don’t remember if they figured out how or why. I’d have to do some digging. There’s enough power in winds to pull water up to make a spout. So why not. There’s been a lot of unbelievable stories out there that are true.

  5. idoubtit
    May 21, 2017 at 7:22 AM

    Anecdotes and speculation are not enough to determine something happened as described. Or to attribute causes. Waterspouts do not pick up water. They throw it around a bit but do not suck it up and transport it. See this like I referenced in the piece. https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4170

  6. Jo Ellen Roberson
    May 22, 2017 at 8:11 PM

    I doubt the fish walked up on the roof of the school. I believe someone would have seen someone up on the school roof dumping fish so I don’t think it was a prank. If disposal was a problem then it seems like it would be easier just to dump the fish in the woods and let nature take its course. I think you under estimate the power of wind. A dust devil can appear on a perfectly sunny day and have winds up to 60 mph, enough to lift a bouncy house with 3 kids in it 10 feet up in the air. I imagine it can lift a school of fish close to the surface of the water.

  7. idoubtit
    May 22, 2017 at 9:17 PM

    Good point about the roof. But, again, the wind explanation fails in several aspects. There is also the factor of surface tension of the water, and no record of such winds.

  8. Paul V Ruggeri
    May 23, 2017 at 12:12 PM

    “First, why aren’t the fish splattered if they fell from a height?”

    Maybe they weren’t falling fast enough? Which begs the question, what is the terminal air-speed velocity of a falling fish?

    The answer could be found somewhere between Douglas Adams and Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

  9. Jo Ellen Roberson
    May 23, 2017 at 2:57 PM

    No Sharon, a strong dust devil/water spout is like a vacuum cleaner. It’s a sudden cold column of air that descends to earth from the upper atmosphere during clear weather. The hot air on the ground rise up into the cold column and begins to spin. Now most of the time they are small and weak but if conditions are right they can lift small objects up into the atmosphere. They wouldn’t show up on a weather radar screen simply because they don’t last long enough, are associated with air currents, and aren’t associated with cloud cover. They can also lift small wildlife within a yard of the edges up into the vortex several hundred feet, keep them aloft, before the animals finally fall back to earth usually already dead. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fish, flocks of birds die this way too. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/china-dust-devil-sucks-schoolboy-into-air-school-gansu-province/

  10. idoubtit
    May 23, 2017 at 3:24 PM

    It is NOT like a vacuum cleaner at all. Most of the spray is condensation, not water picked up from the sea. If a waterspout was strong enough to pick up objects, it would be tornadic in strength. There is zero evidence that this occurred since there is no associated destruction reported. Please see the references in the Skeptoid link above. If you have scientific references of your statements, I’d surely like to see them. Rain of animals caused by waterspouts have never been observed. News reports are almost always inaccurate and speculate beyond current knowledge for these stories. We’ve collected thousands of examples on this site alone.

  11. May 23, 2017 at 3:40 PM

    You are confusing stuff getting kicked around in the ground turbulence with the structure of a tornado (or a tornado waterspout). The visible column of water vapor is an extremely low pressure area and has essentially no winds moving inside it, either up or down. It is not an elevator.

    Also, if you review sites like Doubtful News, you’ll see that almost nobody in the science community believed that Chinese dust devil story.

  12. Richard
    May 23, 2017 at 5:46 PM

    You can walk through a dust devil as long as you don’t mind getting mildly sandblasted. They’re not powerful at all.

  13. polistra
    May 26, 2017 at 8:56 AM

    It wouldn’t be hard for a prankster to plop the fish on the roof without climbing. Use a gas-powered leafblower. Drop a few fish at a time into the output pipe.

  14. May 26, 2017 at 9:32 AM

    I agree with the comment about terminal velocity. I’m not sure how much damage a fresh fish would suffer from a sky fall – they’re not very aerodynamic but it would be easy enough to get some fish and drop them from various heights. I would imagine they’d be at top speed with just a drop of a few stories. Seems like it would be easy enough to do a myth-busters style experiment dropping unfrozen fish from various floors of an apartment building in front of a grid with a decent high-speed camera to see how fast they fall, to determine both terminal velocity and the amount of deformation caused by smacking the ground at top speed. I know some landed in the grass, but if they smack the sidewalk I’d be curious how obvious the signs of high speed impact would be…

    It might be useful to try a few different kinds of fish. (For the record, I’m suggesting here the use of fresh (but already dead) fish. Not dropping live fish. (This is more of a physics experiment than a Fortean one, but still would be useful info for the prestigious journal of Fish Falls. 😉 )

  15. idoubtit
    May 26, 2017 at 9:33 AM

    In our recent episode of 15 Credibility street when we talk about this story, Torkel has actually completed a pilot study on this.

  16. Todd S Stonewall
    May 26, 2017 at 3:12 PM

    When your solution to a mystery is ‘sharknado’, it’s probably wrong.

  17. May 26, 2017 at 4:01 PM


Comments are closed.