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Submitted by jenna.swartz on Mon, 01/10/2022 - 17:58
Audio file
Podcast Series

Dive In with NOAA Fisheries

NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.

Podcast Transcript
(John Sheehan)
More than 4 million square miles of open ocean are under the protection and jurisdiction of the United States. Stretching from the Bering Sea of Alaska down the coasts to islands and the Caribbean far in the South Pacific. The job of managing, exploring and conserving the natural resources of those waters belongs to NOAA Fisheries, part of the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
(Experts voices)
These resources are so tied to the communities.
We can deploy sonobuoys, passive acoustic recorders.
Working from a small boat we photograph all of the whales that we encounter.
So that we can ensure that there are enough fish for everybody in the future.
(John Sheehan)
I’m John Sheehan. And this is “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries”, a podcast about the efforts to keep marine life and our habitats healthy and sustainable and the stories of the people doing the work. With scientists, policy managers, enforcement officers and administrators based all across the country in regional offices, science centers and labs. NOAA Fisheries works with commercial and recreational fishermen, industry, local communities, and partners to bring science-based decision making and management to our oceans.
And it’s a huge job. As I mentioned, it involves managing millions of square miles of ocean, almost 100,000 miles of coastline and supporting a 244 billion dollar fishing industry. Add to that the protection and rebuilding of endangered marine species and habitats it’s an enormous undertaking requiring a deep knowledge and understanding of ocean conditions.
And that’s why we’re kicking off this show with one of the most foundational elements of NOAA Fisheries work: measurements, data collection. Or, as they’re known in the agency: surveys. It sounds like sort of a humble thing going out every year for decades and measuring ocean conditions, coral reefs, fish stocks and habitats. But it is fundamental to the science based decisions and actions that produce sustainable fisheries. It’s also becoming much harder due to climate change.
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Climate Change impacts what we’re looking at in the ocean at all levels.
(John Sheehan)
That’s Doctor Cisco Werner, Chief Science Advisor, Director of Scientific Programs for NOAA Fisheries. I wanted to talk to him about the challenges of conducting these surveys and collecting data at a time when climate change is affecting everything. And to illustrate this we began with a climate event that honestly, I barely remember. But it had huge ramifications.
(Media)
New at 7 a mystery off of our coast has puzzled some scientists.
Ocean waters have been warmer.
5 to 6 degrees warmer than normal.
And it may be a little bit more serious than its name implies.
(John Sheehan)
It was dubbed
(Media and experts)
The blob
The blob
The blob
(John Sheehan)
Doctor Cisco Werner, welcome to “Dive In”. Can we start with “the blob”? What was it, why was it unprecedented?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Thank you, John. The blob was an event that took place in the north Pacific between roughly 2013 and 2016 where there was an extreme warming of the upper waters of the north Pacific ranging anywhere from off the west coast of the United States all the way up into Alaska. And the aspects that were unprecedented about the blob was first how long it lasted. It lasted about 3 years. The amount of heat that was accumulated and how the warm the water became. And then the impact that it had on marine resources of all sorts. It caused shifts in fish populations. It caused shifts in marine mammal population, in ecosystem structure.
The heat was up to two to three degrees above normal and it really exceeded anything we had seen in the past. One way to think about the warm blob was to look at it as a climate change stress test. The range of temperatures that we observed during the blob are in the temperature range that are expected under certain climate change scenarios. And these climate change scenarios are out into the future, several decades out. But we were able to experience or see how our ecosystems would respond if those climate change scenarios actually panned out.
(John Sheehan)
So, this was something that you hadn’t planned on seeing for years and years in the future. And suddenly it was happening right in front of you.
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Indeed. And the mechanisms may be different for how this kind of warming can take place. Warming can take place; global warming meaning an overall warming of conditions. In this case we believe that the blob was a result of change in atmospheric circulation patterns. And that’s what made it special here in terms of creating conditions over this three year period that in some ways mimicked what could happen over longer periods under more gradual warming.
(John Sheehan)
And just a quick, a quick note on the name. As I understand it, it was called “the blob” because satellite imagery showed this big mass of red sort of from the Bering Sea all the way down the west coast, right?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Indeed. Indeed, that’s the case. One of our colleagues, Nick Bond from the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory coined the term. And yes, it’s a very conspicuous image that appears in satellite data. When you see this red indicating way above normal temperatures in the satellite maps.
(John Sheehan)

Wow. Are we still experiencing impacts from that blob?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Yeah, there are some impacts that continue. Some of the populations that shifted during that 2013, 16 period you know might not be rebounded to the normal conditions. Some of the abundances may not also have recovered to where they might have been before the blob. And also, some of the shifts that we’re seeing in populations further north, in the north Pacific going into Alaska and the Bering Sea you know are still beyond what would have been the normal distributions of Pacific Cod or pollock, Alaskan Pollock before the blob.
(John Sheehan)
And so, what was the message. Like, what was the takeaway for scientists and oceanographers. I mean what do you do with such an unprecedented event?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
I think one of the things that emerged out of the blob is how quickly things can change. The reaction of the marine ecosystems, the reaction of the populations of targeted fisheries or protected species. And also, the fact that perhaps we are close to reaching thresholds of certain populations in terms of their ability to tolerate changes in heat. So, it might not take as much to cross these thresholds and have rather abrupt and significant changes in the populations. And so, one of the things that emerged from the warm blob is needing to look at a number of possible changes that might occur whether in distribution, whether in abundance or whether the condition of the species. Cause it’s not just that they’re moving around but also their food source might be different and their conditions might suffer from it. And so, as we look into the future, we need to think about all of these scenarios together in terms of how we provide advice to management in terms of what to do with likely outcomes of these changes that we’re seeing.
(John Sheehan)
And to give and idea of why that’s so hard can we talk a little bit about how historically these surveys had functioned, and you know how measurements had been conducted prior to this.
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Yeah, the history of surveys in fisheries; you can start by thinking it somewhat simply, right. In the sense that in order for us to be able to manage our fisheries we need to understand where the fish are, how many there are, the abundance and also their condition. So, starting with the first one, their distribution we have a good idea of where we should be sampling. And that’s important because that allows us to plan where our survey should be, how much of an area it should cover, how much time we’re going to be spending on the water, etc. In terms of when they’re going to be there that’s also important. It’s important to know that if I’m going to go out and look for a certain species in June, I can plan on that survey happening in June and make sure that that survey fits in with a whole host of other surveys that we’re doing.
And then also we need to be able to sample what they’re eating or what’s preying on them. And so, that brings into the ecosystem sampling part of the survey. In the past or let’s say if I go back 20 to 30 years there was an idea that yes, while things always change and there’s ups and downs associated with phenomena like El Nino or other things these conditions are changes about a mean. So, we understand that there’s an average set of conditions that holds. What happened with the blob is that all of the sudden the fish weren’t where they used to be. We had to sample areas that we wouldn’t have gone to before. The timing of when the fish were there also changed. And so, we needed to think about when do we go out to make sure that we sample the fish population that we’re looking to estimate.
And then ultimately because the underlying conditions changed, we also had to say well how much more of the ecosystem do we need to sample to make sure that the population is sustained. And all of these three conditions are important in terms of determining how it is that we plan current surveys and future surveys and understanding how these might evolve. How do we conduct these as we face these changes that are occurring very rapidly in our oceans?
(John Sheehan)
Can you give me a sense of how physically the surveys are being affected? I mean do you have to send out more ships. Do you have to use new technology that has never been used before?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Yeah, our surveys are being affected in every which way you can imagine. Surveys in the past focus largely on ship based surveys, dedicated vessels that would go out for anywhere from a couple of weeks to two the three months with equipment on the ship such as trawl nets which you put in the water, and you actually sample the fish. You bring them on board, and you can see how big they are, the condition they’re in, how old they are. We use acoustic devices. So, we use things like sonars if you will. The acoustic signals tell us where they are, how many there might be. And there’s other ways that we in the past were able to sample our fish population. Now that needs to expand.
The fish are distributed more broadly, or they have shifted from where they normally would have been found. We need to try to keep the same surveys happening every year, so we have a reference point. But we also recognize that we need to potentially go to places we haven’t gone before. And so, we’re relying on new technologies such as un-crewed systems. And these are gliders for example where they are self-propelled, and they can cover parts of the ocean where ships are not going to be because the ships are still trying to maintain that baseline that’s important to maintain.
But they can give us a sense of are there fish now that are in places that we didn’t see them before? How many might there be? And that in turn might cause us then to think about where should we be thinking about measuring those populations with the new technologies. Yeah.
(John Sheehan)
We’re talking sort of water drones, right? Like un-crewed boats that are remote controlled, or do you just put them in the ocean, let them go and they come back in a matter of weeks?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Yeah. Un-crewed systems can take different forms. One form is you can think of as they almost look like a surfboard with a sail on it. And we will be able to, from shore, navigate the sail drone. In this case sail drone being the company that builds this particular un-crewed system…and direct it to places where we think there might be populations that we need to sample or at least check to see whether those populations are there. These are surface gliders, yes. And then there are ones that are sub-surface. Cause there are some where you are trying to measure what’s happening deeper in the water. So, there’s a range of un-crewed systems that we’re learning to use and are becoming operational.
You also have to recognize that these are different ways of looking at the populations, different ways of measuring. And so, we often need to calibrate what does a glider tell us, what does an un-crewed system tell us versus what does a ship tell us. So, there’s a number of scientifically challenging, technologically challenging aspects of how we re-think our surveys that have to be considered as we evolve our ability to assess our populations and as we evolve our ability to continue to provide sound scientific advice.
(John Sheehan)
And the last two years now almost has given us another wrinkle, which is the pandemic. How has that affected surveys?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)

The pandemic affected significantly our ability to collect data. Particularly the year 2020, which is perhaps a peak to the pandemic. We were only on the water for about 400 days when we normally are on the water close to 2000 to 2500 days. Some surveys were missed entirely. And that left a gap in these important time series that we use to understand these indices and fluctuations in the populations over time.
What we did and we needed to accelerate was our ability to use un-crewed systems and also grow our partnerships with industry to see how it is that we can still continue to collect data and try to make up for some of the gaps resulting from not being able to go out to sea on our ships. So, for example we used un-crewed systems sent to parts of the Bering Sea in Alaska and were able to sample at least acoustically where the populations might be and give us a sense of the abundance of what was out there. And a second partnership with industry was one that we conducted in looking at the bottom fish populations off Hawaii. We were able to collaborate with partners in the fishing industry to deploy camera equipment that would allow us to video the populations along the islands or around the islands. And using methods like artificial intelligence and machine learning we were able to analyze that video in time so that we were able to continue to provide advice to management.
So, those are two examples that actually resulted in very positive outcomes that we are now continuing to use as a result of that positive experience.
(John Sheehan)
Yeah, that sounds like quite a silver lining to a really awful period of time. Does it seem like the processes were pushed forward a number of years that this chain wouldn’t have otherwise happened?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
Yes. I believe that’s the case. Indeed, our having to think about new ways and accelerating how we conduct our surveys as a result of the COVID pandemic was indeed one of the silver linings of an otherwise very difficult year. We’re building on that, and we look forward to perhaps doing even more of that in the years to come.
(John Sheehan)
And in the years to come; given climate change, given the state of the world is there a new normal anymore? Or is everything just shifting all the time?
(Doctor Cisco Werner)
That’s a very good question. And it’s one that resource managers broadly face. Not just in fisheries but also land-based resource management largely as a result of the trend that we’re seeing in global warming and climate change. There’s a concept called stationarity where changes happen, and fluctuations happen. They happen about an average. Sometimes it will be warmer. Sometimes it will be colder. Sometimes be drier, wetter. But on average we know what to expect. We’re entering a period which we now refer to as non-stationary where changes continue to happen but the don’t happen about a mean. They don’t happen about an average. So, increases say in temperature or changes in ocean acidification and that’s the trend itself is changing.
Thigs might happen more frequently. So, whereas things might have happened say once every 5 years or so now they’re happening every 2 years and that of course then changes the ecosystem response to these changes. Sometimes they might not have time to recover. And also, the magnitude of things are different. You know whereas things used to warm up a little bit or cool down a little bit now these extreme highs and extreme lows are also more pronounced.
And so, we’re entering a new world, a non-stationary world where all of these factors need to be considered and it does impact not just what we measure but how we analyze it and also how we provide advice to the managers and decision makers that need that advice.
(John Sheehan)
Doctor Cisco Werner is Chief Science Advisor and Director of Scientific Programs for NOAA Fisheries. In the next few episodes, we’re going to explore more about what makes performing these surveys and maintaining their data so integral to NOAA Fisheries core mandates. And we’ll do it by going where they’re doing the work…the regional science centers across the country and globe. Stick with us. I’m John Sheehan and this has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.
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Our scientists and partners have conducted surveys for 150 years to gather data on ocean conditions and monitor marine life. Learn about the importance of these surveys and how they've been changing due to climate change and the ongoing pandemic.
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