Around the Pier: Ocean Monitoring Program Led by Scripps and NOAA Honored with International Distinction


The California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI), considered one of the world’s most valuable marine observation programs, has been honored with the prestigious international PICES Ocean Monitoring Service Award from the North Pacific Marine Science Organization.

The PICES award “aims to recognize organizations, groups, and outstanding individuals that have contributed significantly to the advancement of marine science in the North Pacific through long-term ocean monitoring and data management” and “also strives to enlighten the public on the importance of those activities as fundamental to marine science.”

Initially organized in 1949 to investigate the collapse of the California sardine fishery, CalCOFI is led by NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC), California Department of Fish and Game, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. CalCOFI has flourished as a unique partnership of government and academic institutions to manage the living marine resources of the California Current. Today, CalCOFI represents an important investment in the collaborative ability to obtain deeper scientific understanding of the oceans, which in turn enables well-informed policy decisions. Faced with many important scientific questions, such as how to sustainably manage regional fisheries and the ability of ocean ecosystems to support the existing web of life in the face of ocean warming and ocean acidification, CalCOFI surveys provide valuable data needed for proper ocean management.

Four CalCOFI research surveys off Southern and Central California are conducted each year, two each aboard Scripps and NOAA research vessels. Using a suite of instruments, CalCOFI researchers collect hydrographic and biological measurements in the California Current to continue adding to a dataset that allows them to assess key commercial fish populations and to study and decipher changes over time in the oceans and their ecosystems. The California Current, home to active fisheries for a variety of finfish and marine invertebrates, also influences weather patterns and the hydrologic cycle of much of the Western United States as well as plays a vital role in the economy of many coastal communities.

Scripps and SWFSC have been working together since before CalCOFI’s inception and today’s collaborations include science projects that focus on such issues as ocean population and ecosystem dynamics, resource economics and marine mammal studies, along with shared use of ship time, and student training.

“As the premier oceanographic observation program, CalCOFI has become a model for multidisciplinary marine monitoring efforts around the world,” said Tony Koslow, a research oceanographer and director of the Scripps CalCOFI program.

Koslow and Steve Bograd of SWFSC were in Hiroshima, Japan, in October at the annual PICES meeting to receive the award from Sinjae Yoo, chairman of the PICES Science Board. Koslow, in his acceptance remarks, highlighted CalCOFI’s history and key benefits:

• CalCOFI is recognized for developing the daily egg production method to assess key regional fish stocks, such as Pacific sardine, and has been instrumental in characterizing the impact of El Niño conditions, decadal ocean oscillations, and, most recently, the potential impacts of climate change on the ocean ecosystem off California.

• Recently, the program has developed fishery-independent time series to manage the market squid, California’s largest and most valuable fishery, and the important spiny lobster fishery.

• CalCOFI has also provided invaluable ocean time series to study changes in deepwater oxygen levels, which are predicted to decline as a consequence of global warming, and their impacts on the region’s midwater fish populations.

• CalCOFI continues to build on the work of several generations of scientists at NOAA and Scripps, and Koslow acknowledged that the program today “stands on the shoulders of giants.”

Cisco Werner, director of SWFSC, noted that “in spite of its success, the CalCOFI program has never forgotten its original mission: distinguishing the effects of the environment versus that of fishing on exploited populations. This, in turn, has led to more enlightened fishery management and more efficient use of industry capital.”

CalCOFI is one of several coastal and ecosystem observing systems based at Scripps, including the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System, part of the West Coast Ocean Observing Systems, the Coastal Data Information Program,  and the California Current Ecosystem Long-Term Ecological Research (CCE-LTER) program.

As CalCOFI and the application of its data holdings continue to evolve, Koslow said the program’s information increasingly will be directed toward “ecosystem-based management,” a growing national priority.

Koslow noted that last year more than 45 research papers in the refereed scientific literature used CalCOFI data, including papers in Science, Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. CalCOFI also is routinely used for calibration and validation of satellite oceanography applications, and is used in conjuction with emerging technological developments such as ocean gliders and sophisticated moorings.

“In addition to the seminal contributions of CalCOFI scientists, the program creates unparalleled  opportunities for doctoral students and other researchers located at Scripps, NOAA, and other laboratories around the world,” said Mark Ohman, a Scripps biological oceanographer and lead principal investigator of NSF’s CCE-LTER, a program that builds on CalCOFI’s ocean observations.

— Mario C. Aguilera (with information from CCE-LTER)

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