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Research Technical Report

Changes in the Cetacean Assemblage of a Coastal Upwelling Ecosystem During El Niño 1997-98 and La Niña 1999

Benson, S.R., D.A. Croll, B.B. Marinovic, F.P. Chavez, and J.T. Harvey (2003)

Progress in Oceanography 54(2003): 279-291


We report results of ecosystem studies in Monterey Bay, California, during the summer upwelling periods, 1996-99, including impacts of El Niño 1997-98 and La Niña 1999. Random-systematic line-transect surveys of marine mammals were conducted monthly from August to November 1996, and from May to November 1997-99. CTDs and zooplankton net tows were conducted opportunistically, and at 10 predetermined locations. Hydroacoustic backscatter was measured continously while underway to estimate prevalence of zooplankton, with emphasis on euphausiids, a key trophic link between primary production and higher trophic level consumers.

The occurrences of several of the California Current's most common cetaceans varied among years. The assemblage of odontocetes became more diverse during the El Niño with a temporary influx of warm-water species. Densities of cold-temperate Dall's porpoise, Phocoenoides dalli, were greatest before the onset of El Niño, whereas warm-temperate common dolphins, Delphinus spp., were present only during the warm-water period associated with El Niño. Rorqual densities decreased in August 1997 as euphausiid backscatter was reduced. In 1998, as euphausiid backscatter slowly increased, rorqual densities increased sharply to the greatest observed values. Euphausiid backscatter further increased in 1999, whereas rorqual densities were similar to those observed during 1998. We hypothesize that a dramatic reduction in zooplankton biomass offshore during El Niño 1997-98 led to the concentration of rorquals in the remaining productive coastal upwelling areas, including Monterey Bay. These patterns exemplify short-term responses of cetaceans to large-scale changes in oceanic conditions.


Benson, S.R., D.A. Croll, B.B. Marinovic, F.P. Chavez, and J.T. Harvey. 2003. Changes in the cetacean assemblage of a coastal upwelling ecosystem during El Niño 1997-98 and La Niña 1999. Progress in Oceanography 54(2003): 279-291.

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