Fishermen often find themselves at the mercy of conditions that exist well outside of their control: extreme weather, temperature, breeding cycles, fuel prices, dock prices for their catch and so much more. But what if some of those conditions could be predicted not just days but months into the future? Would the fishing industry be better able to adapt?

That's one of the goals behind an interesting experiment at the University of Washington, where the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean has developed a new system called the JISAO Seasonal Coastal Ocean Prediction of the Ecosystem or J-SCOPE. The system — currently a prototype — looks at global climate models to anticipate commercial fishing conditions up to six months in the future. J-SCOPE currently looks at five things: chlorophyll levels, sea surface temperatures, sardine populations, oceanic oxygen levels and the California current.

"We're taking the global climate model simulations and applying them to our coastal waters," Nick Bond, a UW research meteorologist, said in a press release. "What's cutting edge is how the tool connects the ocean chemistry and biology."

The prototype system made its first prediction this past January when it warned that the sea waters off the coast of Washington state would experience a period of reduced oxygen (a condition called hypoxia). That prediction came true this past July, and the J-SCOPE system predicts the low-oxygen period will continue through the rest of this year.

"We are excited about the initial results, but there is more to learn and explore about this tool – not only in terms of the science, but also in terms of its application," UW research scientist Samantha Siedlecki said.

The project was initially funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which says it could help fishermen adjust to conditions but also avoid future regulatory hurdles. For example, the system could let regulators know upcoming fish population trends and use that information to set fishing quotas. "Once you overharvest, a lot of regulations kick in," NOAA biologist Phil Levin said. "By avoiding overfishing you don't get penalized, you keep the stock healthier and you're able to maintain fishing at a sustainable level."

J-SCOPE right now is only able to look at the coastal waters of Washington and Oregon, and the sardine predictions aren't available yet, but the researchers say they hope to continue to fine-tune the program and expand it to cover a wide variety of other commercial viable fish, including tuna and salmon.

Siedlecki says the system has great potential to be part of an entirely new management framework for ocean resources that could be of value to state, federal, tribal and local fisheries. The researchers will continue to test their models, add additional data and compare their predictions to real-world data to see how the system does.

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