Diel Vertical Migrators Respond to Short-Term Upwelling Events

Sato and Benoit-Bird, in their 2024 publication, explore how animals remain in a productive yet highly advective environment in the Northern California Current System using NSF OOI Regional Cabled Array (RCA) and Endurance Array (EA) data from the Oregon Shelf site. They characterized fish biomass using upward-looking active bio-acoustic sonar data from the RCA and interpreted results in consideration of upwelling and downwelling using EA wind data and combined cross-shelf velocity data from the RCA and EA.

Acoustic scatterers, consistent with swim bladder-bearing fish, were only present during the downwelling season as these animals avoided the cold waters associated with strong upwelling conditions in summer and fall. Fish responded to short-term upwelling events by increasing the frequency of diel vertical migration. Throughout the study, their vertical positions corresponded to the depth of minimum cross-shelf transport, providing a mechanism for retention. The observed behavioral response highlights the importance of studying ecological processes at short timescales and the ability of pelagic organisms to control their horizontal distributions through fine-tuned diel vertical migration in response to upwelling.

Time series data provided by the combined EA and RCA data made it possible for Sato and Benoit-Bird to perform consistent statistical analyses of bio-acoustic sonar, wind and ocean velocity data [Figure 22, after Figure 4, Sato and Benoit-Bird (2023)]. The vertical positions of scattering layers relative to the cross-shelf velocities revealed the careful positioning of animals at the depth of minimum onshore- offshore transport. The authors focused on cross-shelf transport, the most significant mechanism affecting population dynamics of pelagic organisms. During strong upwelling periods, cross-shelf velocities were strong near the surface and became nearly zero below 15-m depth. The peak scattering layers were in the upper 20 m of the water column during daytime, but organisms avoided the strong offshore currents at the surface (Figure 22a). At night, the scattering layers expanded their vertical distributions, but avoided the region nearest the bottom where onshore currents were strong (Figure 22b). During downwelling periods, scattering layers were located at the depth of minimal transport during day and night and animals avoided strong onshore currents near the surface and offshore currents near the bottom (Figures 22c and 22d).

Figure 22: The influence of upwelling and downwelling on diel vertical migration

Sato and Benoit-Bird show that animals respond to the risk of offshore advection through active changes in their vertical movement that depend on upwelling conditions at daily time scales. Rapid behavioral response of animals to short-term upwelling events highlights their ability to finely tune their vertical positions relative to physical forcing which ultimately controls their horizontal distributions. This work expands our understanding of the ecological role of diel vertical migration beyond its role as a predator avoidance strategy and reveals a tight coupling between animal behavior and physical forcing.

Vertical profiles of cross-shelf velocities (u; gray, solid lines) and volume backscattering strength (Sv; colors, dotted lines), shown as mean ± standard deviations, during (a, b) strong upwelling periods with diel vertical migration and (c, d) strong downwelling periods without diel vertical migration. Data points qualified for strong upwelling and downwelling periods were selected from the time series over 14 months. Negative values in u indicate offshore transport and positive values indicate onshore transport, and larger Sv values suggest higher density of swim bladdered fish.