Marine researchers at the federal and state levels are taking a proactive approach to harnessing information to boost reliance and reduce the impact of climate change on the multi-million-dollar fisheries economy in Pacific Coast states.
Along with the effects of climate change, they’re also learning more about other cyclical intricacies of life in the oceans.
In Oregon, for example, state legislators have made a nearly $1-million investment to address ocean acidification and hypoxia and the risks they pose to the state’s ecosystems and economy. The funds are being distributed to marine researchers through competitive grants.
Laura Anderson, chair of the Oregon Ocean Science Trust, which will manage distribution of the grants, expressed gratitude to lawmakers for understanding the value of investing in increasing ocean knowledge.
“Coastal economies and Oregon fisheries are directly dependent on healthy marine ecosystems,” Anderson said. “And helping policy makers proactively manage ocean resources is ultimately a benefit for all Oregonians.”
Meanwhile, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s lab in Newport, Ore., have been regularly sampling the ocean, looking for evidence of the deep, nutrient-rich source water that feeds a productive ecosystem off the West Coast and in the Gulf of Alaska, said Michael Milstein, public affairs director for the West Coast region of NOAA Fisheries.
An ocean indicators summary for 2021 prepared by NOAA researchers found that 2021 was a very productive year off Newport, characterized by an early spring transition, strong upwelling, cold salty, low-oxygen water and high chlorophyll concentrations on the shelf. Upwelling is when cold, deep water rises, a process that brings nutrients found deeper in the ocean to the surface, which is often nutrient poor.
These conditions resulted in higher-than-average biomass of cold water northern copepods and lower-than -average biomass of warm water southern copepods, the report said. The early onset of upwelling led to cool and productive ocean conditions during the winter and early spring. That winter “pre-conditioning” was likely the driver of the highest annual biomass of northern copepods observed in the 24-year time series, the report said.
“They have learned that different species of tiny shellfish called copepods reflect the source water,” Milstein said. “Well, the news is that after several dismal years of ocean conditions that influence salmon and other species, things appear to be turning around. This is an important signal for people like fishermen who know the ocean. In some ways it shows that the ecosystem is still working in ways we understand.” Such changes, said Milstein, will be reflected in upcoming reports on ocean indicators off the West Coast.
Shift in PDO
NOAA researchers also noted that the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) went into a negative, or cool phase in January 2020 and remained negative until 2021. PDO is a term used to explain climatic events that cover vast areas of the Pacific Ocean for 20 to 30 years.
The PDO has positive and negative phases. In its positive or warm phase, higher than normal sea surface temperatures are found stretching from the west coast of North America down to the Equator.
These higher temperatures produce a horseshoe shaped pattern which surrounds a core of cooler surface waters in the central and northwest Pacific Ocean. These warmer surface waters can result in bountiful salmon supplies in southern Alaska.
In the negative or cooler phase, the situation is reversed, with sea surface temperatures surrounding a core of warmer waters. Such events have been linked to severe drought.
The PDO can influence weather events and global average temperatures.
Millstein notes that in dynamic environments such as the California Current there is so much natural variability that it would be difficult to attribute changes in biomass or predator-prey relationships over a single year to climate change.
“We see changes such as the emergence of marine heat waves that have affected marine life off the West Coast over shorter time spans,” he said.
Marine heat waves, or MHWs, occur when ocean temperatures are much warmer than usual for an extended period of time. They are specifically defined by differences in expected temperatures for the location and time of year. MHWs are a growing field of study worldwide, due to their impact on ecosystem structure, biodiversity and regional economies.
The large 2014 MHW, which eventually became known as “the blob,” was identified as it began dominating the northeast Pacific Ocean. This basin-scale MHW was unique in the history of monitoring in the California Current and persisted until mid-2016, according to the California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment produced by NOAA. Researchers documented ecological effects associated with “the blob,” including unprecedented harmful algal blooms, shifting distributions of marine life and changes in the marine food web.
Then came the Northeast Pacific Marine Heat wave of 2019, the third largest and longest event recorded in the northern Pacific Ocean since 1982. That event lasted 239 days.
NOAA continues to track large marine heat waves, the latest of which began in late April 2021. As of Dec. 14, 2021, this heatwave had remained relatively constant in size and locale in the far offshore waters of the North Pacific. After forming in April 2021 and increasing in size in May, this heat wave broke into smaller fragments in early June, then reformed and continued to expand and reached the Canadian coastline. The lack of strong upwelling winds also led to anomalously warm temperatures along much of the U.S. West Coast in June. The report, though, notes that those conditions, though related, were separate from the effects of this heat wave.
Upwelling winds, which led to cooler coastal temperatures, resumed in July and the heat wave receded from the coast, but remained fairly strong in offshore waters. Waters in the southern California Bight were also warmer than normal during much of the spring and summer, a separate feature from the heat wave. The California Bight is a 426-mile-long stretch of curved coastline that runs along the west coast of the U.S. and Mexico, from Point Conception in California to Punta Colonet in Baja California, plus the area of the Pacific Ocean defined by that curve.
NOAA researchers are continuing to monitor the area, duration and coastal proximity of surface water temperatures in the northeast Pacific and communicate with other researchers and policymakers to understand the array of possible West Coast impacts, the report said.
Regional Action Plans
NOAA Fisheries and its partners have also developed regional action plans to guide their approach to climate-science in each region over the next three to five years. The NOAA Fisheries Climate Science Strategy identifies seven objectives to provide decision makers with information needed to reduce impacts and increase resilience as climate and ocean conditions shift.
They include climate informed reference points, robust management strategies, adoptive management processes, projecting future conditions, understanding mechanisms of charge, tracking change and providing early warnings and building and maintaining adequate science infrastructure.
NOAA researchers, meanwhile, are continuing to release climate change research updates, including one on new fishing opportunities for a booming squid market. An increase numbers of squid from San Francisco, going north into Oregon and Washington, has occurred in conjunction with warmer ocean waters in recent years.
Squid landings in Oregon rose from none in 2015 to nearly 5,000 metric tons, worth nearly $6 million in 2020. Market squid are the largest commercial fishery by value in California, but landings there dropped at about the same time they began appearing in substantial numbers in Oregon. While there have been increases in the survey and commercial catches to the north, the question is whether these are temporary or if they will continue with rising ocean temperatures, noted Brandon Chasco, a fisheries scientist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Newport, Ore. The answer could be important to the shape of commercial fishing on the West Coast in the future, Chasco said.
The squid shift was reported in an article in the journal Marine and Coastal Fisheries in late January by Chasco and other researchers from NOAA, Oregon State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz. They said that understanding ecosystem relationships, such as the connection between warming temperatures and squid numbers, could contribute to an early warning system to help fishing communities anticipate and adapt to changes in fish populations and their locations.
Other species, such as sardines, anchovy and mackerel, also respond rapidly to environmental shifts that may become more frequent with climate change, NOAA researchers said.
Data used to forecast squid density and distribution come from biological surveys led by NOAA Fisheries at two of the agency’s West Coast science centers. NOAA researchers said these increased densities were not surprising to Oregon harvesters and managers. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently created its first regulations for commercial squid fishing in response to increased landings in recent years.
The strategy itself is designed to be customized and implemented through action plans focused on building regional capacity partners, products and services to address those objectives.
The regional plan for the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, led by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, includes research and monitoring to track and project the impact of changing sea ice and other climate impacts on marine resources and resource-dependent communities in that region.
NOAA’s Northwest and Southwest Fishery Science Centers are focused on research to improve understanding of risks to marine ecosystems, species and communities, along with how to forecast them and identify ways to mitigate their impacts. Also included is research on the impacts of environmental variability and climate change on marine ecosystems, fish stocks and fisheries.
The Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, meanwhile, is at the forefront of monitoring coral reef ecosystem health to mitigate effects of new threats. Researchers there also are studying rising sea levels, changing ocean temperatures, changing ocean chemistry and related shifts in ocean productivity and diversity.