A New Call for Tracking Ocean Health: 'The Need is Pressing'


Regarded by many as one of the world’s leading marine observation programs—and by some as the premier program of its kind—the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI) has conducted rigorous data-collecting surveys since 1949. The resulting discoveries generated from CalCOFI have enabled the region’s fisheries to be sustainably managed and underpinned science’s growing understanding of climate change impacts on marine ecosystems.

But as the world plunges deeper into the 21st century, and with it a host of environmental challenges facing the world’s oceans, one thing has become clear: one CalCOFI isn’t nearly enough.

As Tony Koslow and Jennifer Couture of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego recently expounded in Nature, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, CalCOFI-like programs in strategic locations around the world would provide the basis for ecosystem-based fishery management and jumpstart a broad oceanographic knowledge base that is critically required today and even more so as time ticks on for future generations.

The idea for the commentary, “Follow the Fish: A global, long-term program of ecological monitoring is needed to track ocean health,” became clear to Koslow when he discovered the impacts of declining oxygen levels, one of the forecasted future impacts of climate change, on the small fishes and other organisms that live in middle-ocean depths (200–1,000 meters or 650–3,280 feet) off California. He found that several dozen of these midwater fish species had declined by about 60 percent over the past 20 years in apparent response to declining midwater oxygen levels. He also came to realize that there probably wasn’t another data set in the world that could be used to assess such impacts. He began putting these insights into words, which evolved into an essay, and the result was an impactful commentary.

“The need is pressing,” Koslow and Couture note in the article. “The world’s oceans are threatened by many anthropogenic stressors, from pollutants, nutrient runoff, and overfishing to warming, deoxygenation, and acidification. Current ocean-observation programs are not fit for purpose… A global ocean-observation network needs to be established within the next five years to provide baselines against which ocean health can be assessed in the coming century.”

Koslow and Couture point out that billions of tons of fish live in the middle-ocean depths. Their nighttime ritual of rising towards the surface to feed constitutes the largest animal migration on Earth. Information about the denizens of this area and their activities is woefully lacking around the planet because most long-term ocean observation records come from coastal monitoring or commercial fishery programs.

Koslow and Couture’s commentary is timely, given a November 13 meeting in Townsville, Australia, of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a United Nations program coordinating long-term marine observation systems. Over the past 20 years, GOOS has had notable success in monitoring the physical state of the oceans. The Townsville meeting aims to develop biological and biogeochemical monitoring programs. Koslow’s hope is that GOOS takes the messages in the commentary to heart and uses it as a springboard.

“Science has shown us that the ocean is experiencing a serious level of degradation. International financing institutions spend annually close to $2 billion (USD) mitigating land degradation,but until very recently, nothing was being invested on ocean degradation, probably because it is invisible,” said Dr. Patricio Bernal, a Scripps alumnus and former Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in charge of developing GOOS. “Koslow and Couture are right on target—after succeeding in establishing a system to observe the physics of the ocean, now we need to mobilize the concerted action of nations for observing the biology of the oceans.”

CalCOFI, a program led by Scripps, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and the California Department of Fish and Game, has endured for more than 60 years through varying levels of funding and support. In recent years as California’s budget plummeted, NOAA provided the leadership necessary to ensure the program and its valued contributions continued.

“The critical insights CalCOFI has provided about the functioning of the California Current ecosystem would not have been possible without the program’s 60-year tenure and the great research partnership among Scripps, State of California, and NOAA,” said Dr. Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. “Successful long-term research programs like CalCOFI are very rare, but the program’s incredible returns to science and management show why the nation needs more programs like this.”

“The need for effective observing of marine ecosystems and biogeochemistry has never been greater, due particularly to climate change and fishing,” said Dave Checkley, a Scripps professor and Koslow’s successor as head of Scripps-CalCOFI. “Koslow and Couture have done a great service by eloquently articulating this need to a broad audience. CalCOFI has demonstrated the value of long-term ocean observing and is a model for future programs.”

CalCOFI, whose success has been supported by Scripps and NOAA research vessels, paved the way for how the coastal ecosystems can be effectively surveyed and studied, with the resulting benefits of knowledge that follow. It’s an idea that leads back to the 1940s with the foresight of the scientists who founded CalCOFI and their vision to create a comprehensive program with a legacy of value for science and society.

“When we look out at the ocean, it appears blue and lovely and doesn’t seem to change,” said Koslow, who served as CalCOFI’s Scripps director for six years. “But the ocean is changing and the only way we know it is by sampling and having time series of the physical, chemical, and biological state of the oceans. Without those time series we have no idea how the ocean might be changing.”

-- Mario C. Aguilera

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