Ask Dave Checkley and he’ll tell you that one of the most impressive hallmarks of the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI) is rooted in the earliest stages of the program’s history. Although CalCOFI was started to investigate the collapse of the sardine fishery—immortalized in John Steinbeck’s gritty novel “Cannery Row”—the genius of the program, Checkley remarks fondly, was to design a comprehensive program to measure and monitor much more than one fish species.
Checkley, who is now taking over as director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego section of CalCOFI, says the program’s founders in the 1940s understood that the downturn of the sardine population involved a great number of factors. That foresight led to a program that has become one of the world’s most valuable long-term observational efforts in the ocean realm.
“The beauty of CalCOFI is that the originators had the foresight to look for the underlying causes of the sardine collapse and other fish,” said Checkley. “The wisdom of these people was that they really studied the broad oceanography behind the sardine dynamics and insisted on a whole suite of measurements and standards—that’s the wonder and challenge of CalCOFI.”
Now 64 years old, the CalCOFI program, led by Scripps, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC), and the California Department of Fish and Game, continues today with regular cruises and sampling off the California coast, expanding a legacy of a vast observational data resource that has led to a range of insights vital for fisheries, resource management, understanding climate impacts, and other aspects that enable a comprehensive understanding of the oceans and in turn well-informed policy decisions.
Checkley, a Scripps scientist since 1992, has contributed to CalCOFI’s success by implementing a device known as the continuous underway fish egg sampler, an instrument for assessing the habitat and population of fish species. He has mentored several graduate student researchers who have based their doctoral dissertation work on CalCOFI information.
Now, as he takes his new position in CalCOFI leadership, Checkley looks forward to CalCOFI’s evolution from a source for understanding fish populations—including aiding efforts to manage resources for California—to addressing new threats to the seas from impacts such as warming sea waters and ocean acidification.
“CalCOFI is the premier fisheries oceanography observing program in the world in my estimation,” said Checkley, a Scripps alumnus (1978). “Its long-standing nature, and the high quality of its measurements, are of great value to the state and the nation, especially putting changes in context and for science and management.”
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.
“The SWFSC welcomes Dave Checkley in his position as Scripps-CalCOFI director,” said Cisco Werner, director of SWFSC. “Dave is recognized as one of the world’s leaders in the study of marine ecosystems and brings unique strengths to CalCOFI. We look forward to continued exciting and groundbreaking scientific collaborations with CalCOFI and Dave.”
“The Department of Fish and Wildlife is proud to have been a partner in supporting CalCOFI since its inception” said Tom Barnes, program manager for the Department’s State Managed Marine Species Program. “The CalCOFI program pays big dividends by increasing our understanding of population trends, which helps inform fishery management. The larval data cannot be found anywhere else, and the extremely long time series provides trends in abundance for many species that cannot be duplicated. As an added bonus, the CalCOFI Reports scientific journal is a well-respected source for original research on the California marine environment and the fisheries that it supports.”
Checkley takes the leadership reins from Scripps research oceanographer Tony Koslow, who spent six years at the helm of Scripps-CalCOFI.
During his tenure Koslow worked vigorously to maintain funding for CalCOFI to ensure that its vital observational record is maintained and thrives.
Yet the accomplishment that makes Koslow the proudest during his time as director is last year’s award ceremony in Hiroshima, Japan, when CalCOFI earned broad distinction as the recipient of the international PICES Ocean Monitoring Service Award from the North Pacific Marine Science Organization for contributing significantly “to the advancement of marine science in the North Pacific through long-term ocean monitoring and data management… and enlighten the public on the importance of those activities as fundamental to marine science.”
And, like Checkley, Koslow is quick to admire CalCOFI’s foundation and the foresight of its originators.
“One of the remarkable things about CalCOFI is that the founders had that vision of managing within an ecosystem framework, which is thought of as a very modern concept, but it’s at the very heart of the founders’ vision in the late 1940s,” said Koslow. “I have a tremendous sense of standing on the shoulders of giants working for CalCOFI.”
As he leaves the post, Koslow reinforces the idea that science based on long-term observations is crucial in a dynamic world with uncertain futures.
“When we look out at the ocean, it appears blue and lovely and doesn’t seem to change,” said Koslow. “But the ocean is changing and the only way we know 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