The 2015-2016 El Niño event was one of the strongest on record, causing a number of unusual—and some catastrophic—events, from severe rainstorms in Southern California, to thousands of dead animals washing ashore in Chile due to harmful algae. Species such as pelagic red crabs and tuna have been observed much farther north than in typical years as they follow warm water currents up the North American coast.
In light of this extraordinary El Niño season, CalCOFI and the Center for Ocean Solutions co-hosted a science workshop to discuss its potential impacts on the California Current region and the wider Pacific ecosystem. Over 70 ocean scientists and managers gathered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, California on December 16, 2015. Participants exchanged knowledge and perspectives and identified key research gaps and management needs integral to understanding how El Niño events impact the Pacific region.
Ashley Erickson takes notes from group discussion.
Capitalizing on a diverse range of participant expertise, including oceanography, climate modeling, fisheries management and ocean law and policy, the workshop helped generate a broad, interdisciplinary understanding of the current state of the science surrounding El Niño and its ocean impacts. Participants discussed some of the primary barriers to better characterizing the phenomenon (including financial and technological constraints) and ways to overcome these barriers through improved institutional collaboration and data sharing.
In a series of presentations, researchers described forecasting El Niño as challenging because other oceanographic and climate events – such as the recent “warm blob” – often confound climate patterns.
A map of the Pacific Ocean from November of 2015. The red indicates higher temperatures. Photo: NOAA Environmental Visualization Lab.
As Francisco Chavez of MBARI put it, “No two El Niños are alike.”
Workshop participants discussed ways to strategically mobilize research efforts to better prepare for future El Niño events (e.g., by clarifying priorities for data collection, synthesis and securing funding quickly). They also cited the need to improve understanding of management needs under El Niño conditions and to improve trans-boundary knowledge sharing and collaboration, for example between the U.S. and Mexico.
Full group discussions as well as smaller breakout sessions, facilitated in part by COS staff Ashley Erickson and Larry Crowder, allowed for diverse sharing of ideas. Topics discussed throughout the day ranged from the physical and oceanographic impact of El Niño events to resulting changes in fisheries, harmful algal blooms and the health of coastal habitats.
COS and CalCOFI are drafting a summary report highlighting the key ideas and outcomes generated by participants. This work will serve as a “time marker” of the state of the science in December of the 2015-2016 El Niño year. The hope is that the workshop discussions will catalyze future research collaborations by elucidating some of the key scientific and management priorities related to El Niño impacts in the Pacific region in order to manage the resilience of both natural and human systems in the face of future climate anomalies.
Rebecca Martone presents in the policy session.
Laura Good presents at poster session.
By Kristen Weiss
Beneath the soothing sway of kelp fronds and meandering fish, tables with white cloths and flickering candles create an inspiring atmosphere in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s kelp forest exhibit hall. People start to enter, mingling and chatting excitedly amidst the tables as the crowd grows.
Before long, dozens of the best and brightest ocean leaders have gathered, and for good reason—this impressive group has converged in Monterey to celebrate the recipients of the 2016 Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, often called the ‘Academy Awards for the Ocean.’ Each year, the Awards honor ocean heroes in several categories for their ingenuity and dedication to protecting the ocean. This year’s Awards Ceremony was held at the Aquarium on May 20th, followed the next day by an Ocean Leadership Forum featuring talks by many current and past Benchley awardees.
Barbara Block particpates in the Benchley Awards Leadership Forum panel on the future of fisheries with Chris Costello.
Barbara Block, marine biologist and Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, received this year’s Benchley Award for Excellence in Science. Block, an affiliated researcher with COS, joins a prestigious list of past honorees including Steve Palumbi (Director of Hopkins Marine Station), Daniel Pauly and Steve Gaines, among others.
Block was recognized for her groundbreaking research focused on understanding the physiology and ecology of migratory marine animals such as white sharks and bluefin tuna. Using satellite tagging data and innovative tracking techniques, Block and her team have discovered previously unknown migratory ‘super highways’ and hot spots that are the local feeding grounds for these species. Armed with this knowledge, Block stresses the importance of using this science to create larger and more dynamic protected areas to reduce human impacts (e.g., commercial fishing) on vulnerable species like bluefin tunas.
“We have to think bigger than sanctuaries,” Block said during her talk at the Leadership Forum. “We need to protect entire ocean highways, like the California Current, and migratory pathways that stretch across the north Pacific.”
She cited the wide-ranging migrations of animals such as Pacific bluefin tunas that criss-cross the Pacific ocean as juveniles and adults, leatherback sea turtles, many of which travel from the beaches of Indonesia to Monterey hot spots to lunch on jellies, and seabirds that travel from New Zealand to the North Pacific. Block also described the impressive diversity of marine life drawn to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s rich ecosystems.
“Monterey Bay truly is the blue Serengeti,” she said. “Many people don’t realize we have something as special as Kruger National Park right here in the Bay. We need to be doing more to protect it.”
Chris Costello of UC Santa Barbara, this year’s Benchley Ocean Award winner for Excellence in Solutions, has also dedicated a large part of his career to researching fisheries and working to make them more sustainable—both for fish and for people’s livelihoods. Costello and Block led a conversation at the Ocean Leadership Forum focused on sustainable fisheries and how the latest science and technology can help us improve fisheries management.
Costello and Block joined a cohort of impressive awardees for 2016, including Palauan President Tommy Remengesau Jr., Ocean Champions Co-Founder David Wilmot, New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, French non-profit research group Tara Expeditions, Imperial City Mayor Serge Dedina and Georgetown undergraduate Daniela Fernandez, winner of the Christopher Benchley Youth Award.
Other issues discussed by the awardees during the Leadership Forum ranged from climate change and political campaigns to how to engage millennials in ocean protection. While the group acknowledged the severity of the challenges facing our oceans, there remained a sense of cautious optimism throughout the two-day event.
Perhaps Sylvia Earle, Master of Ceremonies, said it best: “We are racing towards tipping points, but it’s not too late. We are here to celebrate hope. We have the power.”
If the accomplishments of the current and past Benchley Ocean Awards recipients are any indication, there surely is reason to have hope for a bright future for our oceans.
Photos courtesy of Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Kristen Weiss
Moroccan Artisanal Fishing Fleet. Photo Credit: Mike Markovina, Marine Photobank.