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NCCOS Research Project

Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics (GLOBEC) Northeast Pacific

Primary Contact(s): elizabeth.turner@noaa.gov
This project began in January 1996 and was completed in December 2008

Northeast Pacific fisheries of salmon, halibut, cod, perch, walleye pollock, rockfish and king crab are the largest U.S. commercial fisheries. From 1996 to 2008, NCCOS partnered with the National Science Foundation to support the Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics Program (GLOBEC). The goal was to develop indicators of ecological change to support fisheries management in the NE Pacific. The program focused on the northern California Current System and the coastal Gulf of Alaska.

Why We Care
For resource managers, it is critical to understand the effects of climate change on the distribution, abundance, and production of marine animal populations in areas important to the regional and national economies. In the Northeast Pacific Ocean, there is a close connection between the ecosystem dynamics in both of its major circulatory systems (gyres)—the California Current System, strongly influenced by upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water, and the coastal Gulf of Alaska, where buoyancy-driven flows, downwelling, and stratification are important.

Abundance of salmon in these two areas was shown to vary out of phase (co-vary) in the years prior to the U.S. GLOBEC program. Atmospheric and oceanographic data suggested that the strengths of the boundary currents in these two gyres co-vary out of phase on annual and inter-annual time scales. On inter-decadal time scales, zooplankton and salmon seemed to co-vary out of phase in the two boundary currents. The fluctuations in these populations, and others, coincide with basin-scale physical changes in atmospheric forcing and ocean conditions, although the mechanisms responsible for the coupled variability were not known.

What We Did
The GLOBEC Northeast Pacific Program (NEP) studied the effects of climate variability and climate change on the distribution, abundance, and production of marine animals (including salmon and other commercially important fisheries) in the eastern North Pacific. The program incorporated this understanding into models capable of characterizing ecosystem dynamics and responses on a range of time scales, including major climatic fluctuations. Two research sub-programs were active in GLOBEC NEP: one off the coast of Oregon in the northern California Current System (CCS), and one in the coastal Gulf of Alaska (CGOA).

The CCS Oregon program coordinated with NSF's Coastal Ocean Processes effort studying cross-shelf transport processes in the CCS. The GLOBEC NEP program also complemented the CSCOR-funded Pacific Northwest Regional Ecosystem study (PNCERS), which focused research nearer to shore. About 50 research projects were jointly or separately funded by NCCOS and NSF. NCCOS support especially helped participants not normally be eligible for NSF support, such as researchers from federal agencies.

The 1997–1998 strong El Niño conditions provided an opportunity to evaluate the effects of oceanic variability on coupled physical-biological systems in the CCS. Long-term observation lines were in place in the northern California Current off of the Oregon coast and in the coastal Gulf of Alaska. Investigators accelerated their planned sampling schedule to monitor the El Niño conditions. Comparisons of 1997–1998 El Niño data with previous El Niño events, the subsequent La Niña event, and data from non-El Niño years helped identify which factors are strongly dependent on El Niño/La Niña, and how future El Niño/La Niña conditions may affect variability in salmon abundance. With improved prediction of ENSO events, and the resulting consequences to fishery populations, management can become more adaptive in response to natural variability.

In 2000, extensive field studies began off the coast of Oregon (CCS) to determine the physical and biological characteristics that affect the oceanic life phase of Pacific salmon. Sampling occurred from Newport, Oregon south to Crescent City, California, and included a three-ship operation comprising measurements of the physical environment, the phytoplankton, zooplankton, juvenile fish, and top predators (marine mammals and birds) that make up the ecosystem. Better understanding of this coastal CCS oceanic environment allows better planning and protection of the salmon resources in this area.

In 2001, the GLOBEC NEP program began field work in the GCOA in a companion study. GLOBEC researchers investigated variability in circulation patterns, and how they may influence zooplankton and salmon growth and survival. A synthesis for both the CCS GCOA and was initiated in 2004.

Benefits of Our Work
Because climate change effects are anticipated to be greater at higher latitudes, GLOBEC NEP provided important opportunities to study potential impacts of global warming on marine ecosystems. Not only did the program provide better information for the region’s salmon resources, it allowed comparison of the two systems, the co-variation between the two systems, and the effects of climate variability on the two systems. With the insight provided by GLOBEC NEP research, indicators of ecological change were developed to assist fisheries management. GLOBEC NEP also served as a foundation for ongoing Integrated Ecosystem Assessments in the California Current and Gulf of Alaska.

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