Temporal variability is an important feature of aquatic ecosystems that can be difficult to measure. A stationary, upward-facing scientific echosounder was used to record the vertical distribution of pelagic fauna in Monterey Bay, CA, for 18 months. To characterize the distributions, a suite of metrics, including measures of density, abundance, location, dispersion, occupancy, evenness, and aggregation, was developed and tested. An algorithm to detect and count the number of acoustic backscatter layers was developed using image-analysis techniques. The metrics recorded a strong seasonal cycle, with total backscatter reaching a minimum during the spring upwelling season and peaking in autumn and winter. Variability in the vertical distribution of animals was greatest at long time-scales and decreased as a power (−1.050 to −1.585) of signal frequency. There were significant peaks in the power spectrum at 12- and 24-h periods, corresponding to the semi-diurnal tide and diel vertical migration. The diel signal was strongest in late winter and weakest during the spring upwelling season. Active acoustics are a useful addition to ocean observatories, and the metrics presented provide a useful set of tools to quantify the distribution and temporal variability of pelagic fauna.