Ocean waters off the West Coast showed signs of improved productivity in 2020 after several years of warm water and poor fisheries conditions, according to the most recent California Current Ecosystem status report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The transition last year from an El Nino to La Nina climate pattern, paired with a strong upwelling of cold water from the deep ocean, created ideal conditions for nutrient-rich plankton to proliferate, according to the report. These tiny organisms provided food for larger marine animals, and their abundance helped grow populations of fish, birds, and mammals such as sea lions higher up the food chain.

“It does look like there was better upwelling on average than we’ve seen in several years,” said Chris Harvey, a researcher with NOAA and co-editor of the report released in March. “We saw more plankton, and the plankton we saw were the cool-water varieties that have more stored fat — more food and better-quality food.”

The report was compiled by NOAA researchers and presented on March 10 to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages commercial, tribal, and recreational fishing in federal waters off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. The council will use the report to better understand conditions within the whole ecosystem when making management decisions and recommendations in the future.

Looking at the status of the ecosystem holistically “helps the council avoid siloed decision-making,” said Kit Dahl, a staff officer at the council.

The council will use the report to inform forecasts for species like salmon, using data collected on parameters such as sea surface temperature to determine catch limits, said Chuck Tracy, executive director of the council.

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