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Transcript: Tracking El Niño and its Effects on Life in the Ocean

Rich Press: We’ve had a very powerful El Niño this year. That, of course, is the phenomenon out in the Pacific Ocean that causes rains and coastal flooding on parts of the West Coast, extreme weather on the East Coast, and basically crazy weather in many parts of the world. But of course, El Niño also has profound effects on life in the ocean. And at NOAA Fisheries that’s kind of our thing, so to learn a bit more about these effects I called our two top scientists on the West Coast.

Cisco Werner is the Director of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California and John Stein is the Director of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. The three of us spoke a bit about how NOAA Fisheries keeps track of El Niño and its effects on life in the ocean. The first voice you’ll hear, that’s Cisco in southern California.

Cisco Werner: We’re at sea a fair bit with all of our surveys, so we do have a chance to sample the event as it unfolds. We also have these underwater gliders that are deployed up and down our coast. They’re out there continuously, and so we actually have a pretty continuous measurement of the warm water showing up. We also have, of course, remote sensing through satellites, and other instruments that really have kept us on top of it, as well as ultimately our large scale model, so computer models that integrate all of this data and give us a forecast that we were actually, you know, rather spot on this year. I think that a lot of what we’ve been reporting and expected to happen has actually happened, and that is in large part because we’ve combined those observations with our modeling capabilities.

John Stein: That’s a really good point. I mean I think Cisco hits on a really key component. You know, we have long-term monitoring out there and that just is so critical when something like an El Niño happens, because you want to know what was it like before, what’s happening with the El Niño, and then as we go forward, what comes next. We in NOAA Fisheries have some really important long-term data collection efforts that without that, we couldn’t say much.

Rich Press: Yes. So to monitor El Niño we have to do more than just monitor El Niño. We have to be monitoring all of the time. One thing that's interesting to me about what we do here at NOAA Fisheries is that, you know, it’s more than just remote sensing. A lot of the physical properties of the ocean, like sea surface temperature, variations in sea level, things like that, can be seen by satellite, but we take it to the next level. We look beyond the physical effects to the biological effects, and for that you actually have to go out on the water and sample what's out there. So, what are we seeing in terms of biological effects from the El Niño?

Cisco Werner: Here in the southern California area, you know, we see very tell-tale signals, you know, in terms of the distribution of the biology. I’ll just mention one. There’s many, but you know, there’s these little crabs that are called red crabs, or tuna crabs, that are normally much further south than what we’re seeing them now and they’re as far north as Monterey, California when they’re normally down in Baja, California and Mexico. This displacement of these organisms is something that we in the fishery side or in the biological side of what we do is, again, a very clear signal that there’s something big going on. Just like a satellite will capture a big temperature signal in the equator, we see this manifestation in the organisms. Together, we put together the story that way.

Rich Press: So, John, what are you seeing in terms of biological signals in the Northwest?

John Stein: As we move north there was that warm Blob that was out there, so this El Niño followed that, and so what we’ve been seeing is at the base of the food web, we’ve had a massive harmful algal bloom event. So, this large event had led to a closure of a very lucrative fishery on the West Coast in Oregon and Washington, the dungeness crab fishery. That’s had a real impact on communities and the fishermen that depend on it. This is something that we’re also trying to monitor pretty closely. We’re seeing still some remnants and tell-tale signs of it out there and this spring, as it starts to warm back up again, it could come back. So, we want to monitor that carefully so we can give good information to everyone, and hopefully give a little heads up if it is coming, which is very helpful.

The other thing we’ve seen and something that we really want to pay close attention to in the springtime, is what the ocean conditions are like for the juvenile salmon as they leave the rivers and begin their life in the ocean. It's a really critical time. We’re really concerned about what they may find, because the last couple of years with the Blob, also was not good for salmon, so it could have this compounding effect of a few bad years in a row, and that would not bode well.

Rich Press: Okay. So a couple of things to keep an eye on, including that maybe the El Niño is low to the dice, so to speak, on another harmful algal bloom. What about positive effects? Have we seen any good news out of this year’s El Niño?

John Stein: So, we were in a drought. We had really warm conditions. The reservoirs and snow pack the last couple of years up and down the coast were, I think, dismal is a fair word to say. They were not good. For the Northwest and Oregon, Washington, Idaho, the drought is gone. The reservoirs have filled up because of the rains and the snow, and this El Niño has had a pretty positive effect from that perspective. And in past years you wouldn’t necessarily think of that as being a positive effect of an El Niño, but it certainly was this time.

Cisco Werner: And on the southern extreme, it’s the recreational fishing that really has had the opportunity to enjoy the presence of tuna, and the opah and the wahoo, and other recreational fisheries that are not present here commonly, and so that has brought a lot of opportunities for the recreational fishery to go out on the water and enjoy the presence of the fishery right now.

Rich Press: We spoke a bit before about the information we collect about El Niño and other ocean conditions generally, whether we collect it during our surveys, or with our automated vehicles, or satellites, and so on. How do we use this information and in particular, how do we use this information to help communities adapt to changing ocean conditions?

John Stein: I think that’s where we’ve made some real progress that I think Cisco and I can speak to. So the coastal communities, I think they’re so dependent on the access to different species for commercial and recreational fishing. We talked about how things are moving and things have moved. So, in some locations the species might be closer, in others they’re going to be a lot farther away and that puts a real impact on the ability to fish, and then to make money, because your costs for going on any single fishing trip increases. So, we’re actually trying to collect economic data at the science center so that we can better model, you know, what happens when these kinds of events occur so we can give lessons learned, information to different people to say, “Well, here’s what we learned. Here’s what’s happened. You may want to use this as you think about the next time.”

Cisco Werner: And generally, what I’ve found is over the last several decades people have learned to appreciate what it is that El Niño can do. You know, there’s a big squid fishery. Market squid is a big fishery here that normally they’ll decline, and people then prepare for it and they know that they might need to think of fishing for something different. I think that’s a result of our ability to communicate that information. Every El Niño is slightly different, but overall, people have been quite receptive to the information that we’ve made available and we’ve actually had quite a number of inquiries, whether it’s at the state level, or community level, or through Councils. It's been a very healthy conversation that has helped us in both directions, in terms of what to communicate, how to communicate it, and also the action that’s been taken in response to it. But again, it’s just a very vibrant and dynamic system that we just have to constantly keep our eyes on.

Rich Press: Well, speaking of keeping our eyes on the system, we’ve spoken about what we’re doing to keep track of the situation. Just now you guys were saying that we’re doing a better job not only of that, but also of communicating information to people about ocean conditions. If you can imagine for me, if you can look out 20 or 50 years into the future how will our ability to deal with these changes be different than it is today?

John Stein: I think as we look out 20 years, the technology has improved dramatically and I think we’ll still see it improve even more. One thing that just popped into mind was this thing called eDNA and what that means is that you can take a water sample, which – I mean you couldn’t have done this ten years ago basically, but you can take a sample of water from out there in the ocean, and there’s microscopic amounts of DNA in there that have fallen off, if you will, different animals that have been in that water. And with the huge advances in technology we can sequence that DNA that’s there, and with the right kind of probes say, “Was there a bluefin tuna there? Were there hake there? Were there salmon there?” That’s going to, I think in 20 years, probably have a big effect on our ability to conduct surveys and increase the amount of information we have.

I think that in 20 years it will be just routine that the ocean really matters. And, we want to take stock of that ocean and collect data, just like we collect data on our economy, because it matters that much to both our economy, our society, our well-being, and our food supplies. So, I’d like to see that. I think it will actually happen in 20 to 50 years.

Cisco Werner: Very much so, yes. Those measurements are critical, because the world is changing in so many different ways. It's not just one thing that’s changing. It's a number of things that are changing, and all at once. You know, the ocean is a very difficult place to observe. It's a very challenging place to be. It's a very hostile environment in some ways, but as we have seen this year and in other years, you know, the ocean and the atmosphere ocean interactions do affect us, not just here on the coast, but in terms of rains and the agricultural lands, and weather all over the place. So, we need to continue monitoring quite closely what’s going on so that we get those details right and understand the evolution of these details.

Rich Press: My last question for you guys. You guys are scientists. You’ve been at this for a while. You’ve been observing El Niños come and go periodically. What is one thing that you wish you knew about the El Niño phenomenon that we don’t currently know?

John Stein: I guess from what’s been crossing my mind is that it’s a cycle. I mean the ocean is dynamic. It's changing, so what’s next? After the El Niño last time we then went into a very strong La Niña and conditions for salmon were outstanding and they really came back really well. Well, we don’t know. Right now the projection is that maybe we’ll have a La Niña. It's probably still a bit early to say, but it’s that, you know, kind of what’s next, what’s the cycle, how do these things evolve, and can we be better at predicting that? So, better understanding the cycle itself.

Cisco, what do you think?

Cisco Werner: Yeah, John. What this, the last three or four years perhaps taught us, or at least alerted to, is that with this warm Blob and warming conditions that we saw, we may see these cycles or periodic events occurring on a shifting baseline. So we will have an ocean that is warmer. It will be more stratified. It will have other characteristics that will cause the evolution of what we saw in the past to be different. So, things that we wish we knew, of course, you know, it would be very interesting to understand mechanistically how it is that the El Niños are triggered. We’ve made a huge amount of progress. I mean I remember when I was in graduate school 30 years ago. This was a relatively mysterious thing and now we are actually quite good at it and quite good at communicating information and understanding what happens. But the system keeps changing on us, both for natural reasons, as well for maybe anthropogenic reasons, but it’s something we just have to continue to keep our eyes on it and I think we can do a pretty good job at that.

John Stein: Right. I think that’s a really key part about that. It is a changing – we have a changing system now with climate change. We know that. It's going to change. I think for our economic system we collect data so that we can run our economic model, so we can give society advice about what might be coming next. Cisco alluded to more data to really get at those triggering mechanisms. I think that’s really what we need to be looking at. I think the message from both of us is that foundation of the ocean really matters and we need to have data from it so that we can actually inform folks well.

Rich Press: Yes. Definitely. I agree. As far as the keeping people informed part goes, I think this is part of it, this conversation that we’re having today. So, thanks John, thanks Cisco, so much for letting me call you. I know you’re both really busy and I appreciate your taking the time.

John Stein: It was good talking to you too.

Cisco Werner: Thanks, Rich. It's been a pleasure.

Rich Press: Okay. Thanks, guys. I’m going to try to – I don’t know how, I’m going to try to edit this down to like the best 12 or 15 minutes.

Cisco Werner: Well, just take my parts and delete John’s. That’s fine.

John Stein: There you go. Exactly.

Rich Press: That was John Stein, Director of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and Cisco Werner, Director of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. Both these guys have top-notch scientists on their staffs that monitor and model El Niño, the warm Blob, climate change, and other phenomenon that affect life in the ocean, and our own lives here on land. 

For more information about that, check out our podcast website. That’s Among other things there you’ll find two recent podcasts with scientists who have spent a lot of time at sea studying the warm Blob and harmful algal blooms.

Thanks for listening. Join us again next time for more stories about ocean life and ocean science. I’m Rich Press and you’re listening to On the Line.

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You have been listening to the NOAA Fisheries’ podcast, "On the Line". Join us next time for a firsthand look at the people and the science behind managing our nation’s fisheries. For more information, visit NOAA Fisheries at

"On the Line" is a production of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Communications.

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