Extraordinarily poor recruitment of Japanese eels in East Asia has been generally reported during extreme El Niño years. However, the scenario failed to take place during the 2015–16 extreme event. In this study, we examined possible factors responsible for differing eel abundance in East Asia during the two strongest recent extreme El Niños, which occurred in 1997–98 and 2015–16. Numerical tracer experiments were carried out to determine why the impacts on eel catches seen in 1997–98 were not repeated in 2015–16. Among physical factors, two scenarios are likely responsible for extremely poor recruitment in East Asia: southward migration of the North Equatorial Current (NEC) or southward movement of eel spawning grounds. Comparing the latitudinal shift of NEC locations between the 1997–98 and 2015–16 El Niños, we conclude that NEC migration may be a factor, but is not chiefly responsible, for lower eel catches. Our findings pointed to southward movement of spawning grounds as the dominant factor. The northward movement of spawning grounds during 2015–16 meant that eel larvae were preferentially transported into the NEC-Kuroshio system, which resulted in a higher rate of recruitment success. The distinct evolution and dynamics of these two El Niño events led to different spawning ground locations, impacting eel abundance in East Asian countries.
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