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.
It’s hard to hear the U.S. west coast and think of just one thing. Am I talking about sunny San Diego or often rainy Seattle or just fine San Francisco? Similarly, with the waters and marine life of the North Pacific which include in varying places sea turtles, killer whales, oysters, Elephant Seals, squids, sharks, salmon, sardines, and much in between. But the west coast can also be thought of as a unified region, a vast expanse between Mexico and Canada. And one reason is the California current. The nutrient rich water that flows from and connects north to south.
00:00:41:04 (Kristen Koch)
And then one other thing is that we host a lot of trans-boundary species. Some of which migrate all the way across the Pacific Ocean and back. Really breathtaking diversity.
00:00:51:09 (John Sheehan)
This is “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries”. I’m John Sheehan. Today we’re talking about the west coast but from two perspectives; the northwest and southwest as we continue our kickoff series on regional surveys. I spoke with two science center directors who frequently work together despite being more than a thousand miles apart: Kristen Koch, the Director of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla California and Kevin Werner, the Director of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Kristen Koch and Kevin Werner welcome to “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.” Could you give me a sense of just the variety of different types of surveys that each of your science centers perform, what you’re measuring, the species you’re measuring?
00:01:35:07 (Kristen Koch)
Sure John, thanks. First of all, thanks for having us today. This is great. In the Southwest we conduct a lot of different types of surveys. Obviously, fisheries surveys, ecosystem surveys and protected species surveys. Those that study marine mammals and turtles and abalone. We use a variety of different platforms to do those surveys, mostly large ships but also small boats, uncrewed autonomous systems like remotely operated vehicles. We also tag animals, many of which are tracked by satellite. And then finally we also collect a lot of information on humans and their interactions with fisheries and other parts of the ecosystem.
00:02:13:09 (Kevin Werner)
Yeah, thanks John. And there’s a similar situation here at the northwest center. We have those three types of surveys as well; fishery surveys, ecosystem surveys and protected resources surveys. In the northwest we focus a lot on salmon. We have a number of salmon species that are listed on the Endangered Species Act and it’s important for us to understand the entire life cycle of those animals. They’re born in freshwater streams throughout the Pacific Northwest. So, we have survey efforts that are pretty terrestrial nature looking at those stream habitats. And then we have the juvenile salmon and ecosystem survey that we do. To understand what happens to these salmon when they enter the marine environment, when they start to move around in the ocean and what they’re eating and where they’re going and what they’re doing.
00:02:58:04 (John Sheehan)
Kevin, could you stick with salmon for a minute and discuss a little bit more about what salmon you survey and why they are endangered?
00:03:05:09 (Kevin Werner)
Absolutely. We survey basically all types of salmon. And there are different species of salmon. There’s different states of threatened, endangered, or salmon that aren’t threatened or endangered that are caught as part of fisheries on the west coast. One other kind of salmon that we’re also interested in are hatchery salmon which have been introduced widely in the Pacific Northwest with the introduction of the hydro power system in the 20th century as they were building dams on the rivers to mitigate for the expected losses of the wild salmon they built a lot of hatcheries to produce salmon to exist in the same environment as the wild salmon. So, we’re interested in studying those as well.
00:03:43:00 (John Sheehan)
And Kristen, moving south could you tell me about one of your specific surveys maybe around a species?
00:03:52:02 (Kristen Koch)
Yeah, one of our major surveys is our coastal pelagic survey that we do once a year, at least once a year. And typically, our largest sampling effort for that is made during the summer months where for about eighty days we’re targeting adult populations of these smaller pelagic’s like sardines, anchovies, mackerels, and squid. And we start in Canada, and we go all the way down to Mexico. Those are the species, some of which are important really in their own right as commercially fished stocks, but they’re also considered to make up the forage base. Collectively they make up the forage base of the California current. So, we want to be sure that we have a good understanding of that complex. And so, we conduct these surveys in order to estimate the adult abundance and distribution of those species.
00:04:41:06 (John Sheehan)
Yeah, and forage fish was something I hadn’t really heard before. Could you go a little more into that and explain why forage fish are so important to the ecosystem?
00:04:50:05 (Kristen Koch)
Sure. If you think about a food web in the ocean you’ve got different what we call trophic levels, or in other words the position an organism occupies in the food web depending on what they eat and what eats them. So, within these webs there are lots of interactions going on between these trophic levels. It’s actually what keeps many of our scientists busy trying to figure out who’s eating who out there. Coastal pelagic species occupy a central place in food webs cause they’re members of a higher trophic level than say your plankton level. They’re feeding on plankton but they’re also, in turn prey for higher trophic level species like tunas and sharks. So, they’re in that kind of important middle ground in the ecosystem.
00:05:39:02 (John Sheehan)
And can you also talk about the CalCOFI survey which I believe is one of the longer running surveys ever. And it began by measuring sardines?
00:05:51:01 (Kristen Koch)
Yeah, so CalCOFI is another one of our major efforts every year. We go out four times a year and the CalCOFI program started almost 75 years ago now in an effort to look at what’s driving this boom-bust cycle of sardines. Those coastal projects are very environmentally driven. So, they can go through these really dramatic boom-bust cycles. So, we designed a whole program around that. Over time it’s evolved. The program has evolved. The surveys have gotten into more of an ecosystem type survey where we’re looking at lots of different oceanographic variables as well as biology to see what’s going on in the California current.
00:06:32:06 (John Sheehan)
And Kevin, can I also ask you about the joint U.S./Canada Hake survey?
00:06:39:01 (Kevin Werner)
Yeah, absolutely. So, the largest federally managed species in terms of the economic value of the fishery off the west coast…it has an annual value of around 250 million dollars, supports about 3400 jobs on the west coast. And it is a shared survey between the U.S and Canada. About 78 percent of the stock is in the U.S. historically and about 22 percent in Canada but is shifting a bit with climate change. But nonetheless this is a fishery that’s been managed under the U.S.-Canadian Hake treaty. We actually have two ships: one from the U.S. and one from Canada. And they work together on a shared survey design that spans from California all the way up to British Columbia and then almost to Alaska. It’s a every other year survey. So, it goes in odd numbered years. We just did the last one in 2021. And those surveys in this current mode of operations now for more than two decades. I mean I think it’s a really good example frankly of two countries working together to do science in a way that supports the management of the fishery for both countries.
00:07:40:07 (John Sheehan)
And speaking of collaboration how do the northwest and southwest fisheries science centers collaborate?
00:07:49:06 (Kristen Koch)
Yeah, I mean I think we’ve had a rich history of collaborating. We’ve historically done some surveys in some years together jointly. I think in the future we’re looking at doing more systematic integrated surveys across the two centers.
00:08:00:02 (Kevin Werner)
We do cover the same geography for a lot of our surveys. And it is increasingly important for us to work with each other through increased communication, increased collaboration up into and including doing surveys together so that we can be optimizing the investments that go into collecting the data off the west coast of the U.S.
00:08:23:01 (John Sheehan)
Given that climate change has been shifting conditions across the globe what other impacts have you seen in your regions?
00:08:32:09 (Kristen Koch)
Yeah so, one of the big events that happened in the recent past here in the north Pacific was the large marine heat wave that we saw in the time frame of kind of 2013-2016. Most people are familiar with that event as the warm blob. Since that warm blob period we have seen some kind of a similar marine heat wave event every year since then. And those events have impacted in large ways or small ways the fisheries and ecosystems that we have on the west coast.
00:09:03:00 (Kevin Werner)
The increased frequency of marine heat wave events has certainly been a big impact up here as well. We see that manifesting itself in terms of seeing species that we’ve never seen up here or have only seen rarely before. Two of the more common ones that we’ve seen are pyrosomes, which are sort of like big, gelatinous almost jellyfish-like creatures and then squid. We’ve seen squid coming into Oregon and Washington and has historically not been in Oregon and Washington with any major frequency and to the point where there’s actually like a squid fishery in the state of Oregon now that the state is keeping numbers and statistics on.
00:09:38:09 (John Sheehan)
Wow. And of course, in the last two years you’ve also had to accommodate a pandemic. How has that affected your operations?
00:09:48:03 (Kevin Werner)
It basically shut us down. And we did not field any surveys until late 2020 as we finally sort of got our arms around how to do surveys in a pandemic era in terms of all the different protocols about getting a ship and a crew and scientists tested and quarantined. This is before the vaccine came along so they could safely interact with each other on a vessel in close quarters with each other. And then fast forward in 2021 in this last year we had a lot more success because we had that experience of being able to think through and act through how can we do surveys in a pandemic year.
00:10:27:06 (Kristen Koch)
Yeah, same for us down in the southwest. We had lots of disruption in our 2020 surveys. Fortunately, in 2021 we were also able to get back on the water for the most part. I think we executed all of our surveys in 2021 in some way. But the disruptions of the pandemic have been really interesting. I mean unlike maybe in some other years where you’ve got weather or mechanical issues, we’ve always got lots of things that come at us when it comes to our ship surveys. But these disruptions like a whole year without data; they cause gaps in our long standing time series that will never be recovered. And we rely on those to assess the stocks that we’re responsible for. So, I think it really pointed out the importance of these multiple data streams that we’re developing. You know just like you don’t just buy one stock in your stock portfolio you need to have diversity of data collection efforts so that you really can understand.
In years when you actually have everything operating well you have amazing data. In years when you lose something you still have data. It’s just not quite as comprehensive. But yeah, the importance of diversity I think is what we’ve learned.
00:11:39:02 (Kevin Werner)
Yeah, I agree with that as well. We’ve talked about the challenges for continuing data collection. We talked about the pandemic. Obviously, we talked about weather and mechanical problems on ships. One thing we haven’t talked about, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention is the fiscal challenges. These things are not getting cheaper. We do have experience recently in 2019 just before the pandemic one of our surveys, our west coast ground fishery was cut in half because of fiscal reasons. We didn’t have the resources to fund a full survey that year. So, we got a bit of a preview this is the year just before the pandemic of what it’s like to lose half of a survey. And what does that mean for the data record. And then follow it up with the pandemic year we lost the entire survey. So, I bring that up because I think it’s important to think about how we do surveys in ways that are optimizing the fiscal investment as well as the scientific investment going forward. And I agree with Kristen. There’s ways to think about evolving what we’ve done while also maintaining the important long term records that we’ve been collecting over years and decades in many cases now.
00:12:41:02 (John Sheehan)
Kristen Koch and Kevin Werner thanks so much for spending some time.
00:12:44:05 (Kristen Koch)
Thanks for having us, John. This has been great to talk about surveys.
00:12:49:01 (Kevin Werner)
Likewise. You’re very welcome. Thanks for having us, John.
00:12:51:00 (John Sheehan)
Kevin Werner and Kristen Koch are the Directors of the Northwest and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers, respectively.
00:13:00:00 We heard Kristen mention the CalCOFI survey. And I wanted to learn a little more about it. CalCOFI, or the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations program is one of the longest running surveys in the country and is sort of a unique partnership between NOAA Fisheries, the State of California, and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. It’s also a pioneer of the ecosystem approach used widely today.
00:13:24:08 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
We look at the physical and chemical properties of the water. But we also sample the biology. And that is the strength of CalCOFI. This amazing time series of the three things in time at the same point. And that can tell you so much about what’s happening in the ocean.
00:13:38:02 (John Sheehan)
That’s Doctor Noelle Bowlin, the head of the CalCOFI program. She’s an ideal person to explain the survey as she not only leads the program for NOAA Fisheries, as we hear she gets on the boat and collects samples. The survey is quarterly where one ship goes out to roughly seventy-five stations in San Diego out to almost Santa Maria, California. And twice a year up to San Francisco.
00:14:03:06 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
We’re looking at properties of the water. Basic things like temperature and salinity. But we’re also looking at dissolved oxygen. We look at other properties like nitrate, ammonia. We do carbonate chemistry. And then for the biology we are looking at lower trophic levels. We’re looking at zooplankton, ichthyoplanktons, so larval fishes, invertebrates that are in the upper two hundred meters of the water column. And it takes about an average station takes about an hour and a half to two hours to do all of that sample work. We collect a lot from the water there. I mean you can imagine we send down this instrument that has twenty four ten-liter bottles. Ten liters is quite a bit of water. And we have twenty-four of them. From that we do a number of things to look at the water and test it on the ship. But we also inside of that package the conductivity, temperature depth package, the CTD…we have a number of additional sensors that are sending back real-time data as the unit is lowered into the ocean.
And then we drag a few types of plankton nets and look at the larval fishes and the invertebrate community in the upper water column.
00:15:18:08 (John Sheehan)
Yeah, this instrument you talk about. It looks kind of like a bunch of sort of oxygen tanks strung together, right? In a big cylinder?
00:15:25:02 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
Yeah, they are PVC pipes that have been fitted with stoppers essentially, and springs that are hooked up to a conducting cable so that we can, from the ship, hit buttons and close the bottles at certain depths to collect the water. But yeah, it’s a big giant cylinder with lots of PVC pipes around it and stoppers.
00:15:50:02 (John Sheehan)
So, can you take me through a day on one of these, these cruises? What is the work like? I mean are you under decks the whole time? Are you out on the bow of the ship you know in horrible conditions in slickers?
00:16:03:02 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
Ha ha ha…all of the above. It depends on the weather but yeah, actually what we’re doing is we work 24 hours a day. And so, we have both the ship’s crew and the science crew and you work a 12 hour watch. And so, maybe John you would be on from noon to midnight, and I would be on from midnight to noon. Cause it’s not cost efficient to, or time efficient to stop the ship at night for people to go to sleep. If you’re on watch, you are constantly prepping your equipment to be ready to be dropped into the water and collecting samples. And you are basically always in your boots because there’s always water around. And then when it’s time to get out on station, which is what we call it. You know “station coming up in 20 minutes, everybody get ready”. You do put on your slickers depending on the weather because you’re going to get wet. You’re typically going to get wet.
And then you’re out there either you’re writing things down or you are tapping on a computer screen you know a hand-held that’s waterproof to collect information as your instruments are going in. Or, if it’s the CTD you know you drop it in, which it takes like six people to do with taglines cause it’s a big piece of equipment. You have somebody operating a winch, one of the deck crew. And then someone giving hand signals from the deck to the winch operator so that we all know what’s happening. And then you have all your scientists on taglines and deck crew helping to get that instrument in the water safely so it’s not swinging back and forth you know. And then you release your taglines and everybody goes in and starts prepping their vials, their bottles. Meanwhile the science crew that is going to be doing the biology work, they’re prepping labels and vials and jars and getting all the nets ready, making sure the cod-end, the piece at the end that collects everything is attached. All those things get double and triple checked.
And then once you get all your samples everybody is processing the samples to a degree. That gets them ready for either their archiving or the processing later back at the lab or processing 12 hours later in the lab on the ship. So, the biology staff comes back to the land cause it’s really hard to look under a microscope at sea. Although we do that too cause we also have an underway system that’s constantly pumping water 24 hours a day. In certain seasons we this to look at the fish eggs, which are buoyant. And so, we can say you know what’s been in the water recently. So, there’s constantly things happening. It’s like nothing else that you could ever do. I know that the first time I went out there I was just astounded at every turn. It’s pretty cool.
00:18:37:07 (John Sheehan)
So, it was what, you know I mean as you it was sort of the physical adventure-ness of it was sort of the rigorous sea-faring?
00:18:43:07 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
Yes. It was that an also I was totally amazed that, I knew cruise ships have this, but cruise ships are like giant massive things. But like, a ship that’s you know two hundred feet long and you know 4 or 5 stories high with a total of 25 or 30 people on it…it’s a moving city. Everything that you need to be able to do is there. You have a hospital. You have a fabrication room that can make anything down below in the Engineering Department. Anything that breaks, they’re going to fix it because you’re in the middle of the ocean. You can’t run to Home Depot. You know what I mean. It’s that amazed me. And it amazed me going into the mess deck and looking in the galley, the kitchen and seeing what two humans could produce in such a small space and make amazing food. Because the other thing is everyone’s working really hard. And what is the most rewarding thing that you can get when you’re working really hard? A really good meal. It’s a very unique environment.
00:19:47:00 (John Sheehan)
That’s really cool. And how long are you out on say, one cruise?
00:19:52:00 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
So, on one cruise to do the core seventy-five stations you know, barring any weather delays or any ship delays, you know malfunctions where you have to come in to fix something, it’s 17 days. 17 days of 24 hour operations. And then when we do the northern pattern when we extend up to San Francisco then we’re looking at I think 23 days…23 to 25 days. That’s how long it will take.
00:20:15:02 (John Sheehan)
That’s a long time.
00:20:17:00 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
00:20:17:03 (John Sheehan)
I guess not in the scheme of things.
00:20:18:07 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
I mean I don’t yeah, I guess it depends, right? It depends on your perspective. But I know the first time I went out I went out for 10 days and I was like “Oh my gosh, I’m not going to be on land for 10 days?”. I thought that was so long. Now if I went out for 10 days it would be the blink of an eye. It’s very interesting.
00:20:32:02 (John Sheehan)
Can we talk a little bit about the history of this survey? It began so long ago and one of the reasons it’s so important and valuable is its long data set, its long history of data.
Yeah so, it started because of the decline of the sardine fishery. So, the sardine fishery was really big off the coast of central and northern California. It was a really big deal. The thing is you know in World War I there was a need to feed soldiers. And what you needed; you need protein, you need fat, and they need to be shelf stable. And so, there was a gigantic demand for them. And the fishery started to decline. But then demand also started declining at the end of the war. And so, the fish you know, they came back a little bit. And then at the ramp up of World War II, the same thing happened. And so, industry, academia, and states and federal government were like whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa…we’ve got to figure this out. And a committee was formed. Federal, state officials, academics, and industry got together and the first cruise of what would later be called CalCOFI was in 1949.
And so, what you had were oceanographers and then you also had some biologists get together and work together to figure it out. Is it the environment? Is it the fishing? What is it? And what’s really neat was that this was basically the earliest use of what we would call now an ecosystem approach to fisheries biology.
00:22:10:01 (John Sheehan)
And so, today CalCOFI is much more than about sardines. It’s about the California current ecosystem. What other advancements have come as a result of CalCOFI?
00:22:21:09 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
Yeah. The most well-known, at least within our community, our CalCOFI community is the description and understanding of the El Nino phenomenon. It happened when the ’57-’58 warming happened. A bunch of scientists came together and had a symposium, the CalCOFI folks got everybody together and was like “what’s going on? What’s this warming?.” And there was a graduate student in the audience, Garth Murphy, who would later become the first CalCOFI coordinator. And he was doing his graduate work off of Peru. And as everyone’s describing what’s happening off of California and he’s like “wait a minute, I’ve seen something like this. This is like off of Peru. And they there…they call it El Nino.” When it occurs, they call it El Nino cause it happens at Christmas time there. That was the first time they coined the phrase, or the term technology to use El Nino to describe this cyclical warming that they were seeing.
00:23:21:02 (John Sheehan)
Especially in the last 10, 15 years you’ve really been on the front lines of ocean warming. Can you talk about how the survey’s provided insights into how the California current is changing?
00:23:37:00 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
Yes. Absolutely. So, what we’ve been able to see with our quarterly sampling and understanding the patterns that we are quote, end-quote average…what we would expect. There’s been a tropicalization of our region. What you start seeing in these warming periods is the movement of species that are typically very abundant in the southern region. So, off Baja Mexico. And you see them start moving in and moving north. And when the warm water comes and persists, cause that’s what these marine heat waves have been of late, then you start shifting many things. Lots of things are affected by this. And so, yes, we’ve been able to see some significant changes in the community. Do we know that, what that’s going to mean permanently? No. But we have seen some things like that. We saw California Sea Lion pups were starving and dying. And that’s because the mom’s couldn’t find enough fatty food to produce fatty milk for them.
And they were gone for longer periods of time and searching for food then they normally would be gone because they couldn’t find what they were looking for. We’ve seen all of these types of things and can describe them because of this long time series of data and archive samples, which is significant.
00:25:00:01 (John Sheehan)
Yeah. And because it’s so crucial to go out every year and to preserve these time series what has been happening in the last two years with complications from the pandemic?
00:25:13:04 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
You know it’s been really tough. The last two years has been really tough for everybody. For all the reasons, right? It actually pains me that we’ve, we’ve missed collections. And that’s going to cause permanent holes in our time series. Well now we’ve done our best to get out and collect bits of information but for instance this past spring we normally get out late March, the first week of April and we’re out there for 25 days. Because of COVID and the rules and protocols we were very delayed, and we didn’t get out until the first week of May. This is the first time in the history of CalCOFI that a spring cruise has gone out that late. We’ve had to abbreviate our sampling. We’ve had to in terms of timing like how long we’ve gone out for we’ve had to shorten our cruises and we’ve had to not collect as many parameters as we normally do. We’re doing the best that we can. So, I don’t know yet. I’m sorry I can’t answer that very well. But we’re feeling it and we’re frustrated by it.
00:26:27:02 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Noelle Bowlin, thank you so much for talking with us.
00:26:31:04 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
Thank you. This has been really cool.
00:26:34:01 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Noelle Bowlin is the head of the CalCOFI program at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. There was something else that Noelle said that stuck with me.
00:26:41:08 (Doctor Noelle Bowlin)
You know we have all of these data that are expertly curated. And the teams of people that do that portion of the work…there are actually not that many. There are actually very few of us. And they’re a little bit behind the scenes. I want to say “I see you. I know what you’re doing, and I appreciate you.”
00:26:58:09 (John Sheehan)
It was this really nice expression of solidarity that was in the context of something that Kevin and Kristen touched on earlier which is: the sense of doing more with less. Or put another way, making the most of what we’ve got. I think we can all relate to it. Next time on the show we leave the Pacific for the Atlantic and talk with the Director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. I’m John Sheehan and this has been “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.”
00:27:32:0 (Podcast ends)