NOAA Fisheries’ two West Coast Science
laboratories are joining forces with the Alameda, Calif., company Saildrone
Inc. to test the first use of autonomous, wind and solar-powered vehicles to
gather essential data on West Coast fish populations, including commercially
valuable species such as hake, sardine, and anchovy.
Two saildrones will launch from Neah Bay,
Wash., and three will launch from Saildrone’s home base in Alameda in late
June. The drones will undertake different missions, all related to improving
the efficiency and accuracy of fisheries stock assessments off the West Coast.
Stock assessments make estimates of fish populations, which the Pacific Fishery
Management Council and NOAA Fisheries use in setting fishing rules and limits
for the commercial fishing industry.
Four of the saildrones will duplicate the path
of the NOAA Fisheries ship Reuben Lasker as it collects data on populations of
sardine, anchovy and other small fishes, to also survey hake, a deep-water
species that is one of the West Coast’s most valuable commercial fisheries. Two
of these drones will launch from Neah Bay and two from Alameda. Scientists from
the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and Fisheries and Oceans
Canada will work with Saildrone to manage the research. Scientists can adjust
the drones’ assignments in real time.
“This a real opportunity for us to test new
and likely better ways of collecting data that informs some of our most
important decisions on fisheries management,” said Larry Hufnagle, a NWFSC
research scientist who will help direct the mission.
A fifth saildrone will explore different
approaches to improving the accuracies and efficiencies of future stock
assessments. Scientists from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La
Jolla, Calif., will help manage the mission with Saildrone. These experiments
have four objectives.
-- Collect data closer to shore than NOAA
ships can safely navigate, to estimate fish in shallow water.
-- Survey ahead of the ship, to enable the
ship to focus on the most productive waters.
-- Study the same area on multiple days, to
study the vertical-migration and schooling behaviors of various fish species.
-- Survey fish stocks as they migrate past a
repeated saildrone transect, to improve the efficiency of ecosystem
The SWFSC conducts stock assessments of small
pelagic fishes such as sardines, mackerels, and anchovies.
The saildrones can transmit some data each
day, but full details will be downloaded from the vehicles at the end of the
mission. The saildrones are designed to remain independently in the field for
up to a year, although the four-saildrone mission will run up to 100 days, and
the fifth saildrone may be deployed for up to six months. A saildrone typically
travels at less than two knots, or a couple miles per hour, while the ship
travels at 10 knots, leading to the use of multiple autonomous vehicles to
cover the ship’s survey course.
The efforts will answer questions of whether
autonomous data collection can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of
fisheries management on the West Coast. If the saildrones can add more complete
data or make better use of the data collected by ships, they have potential to
increase the precision and accuracy of NOAA Fisheries and DFO stock estimates.
Scientists noted, however, that there are
tradeoffs between the use of ships and autonomous vehicles in terms of time,
and the suite of data that can be collected by each platform.
“We’re fortunate that Saildrone has been
flexible enough to figure out ways to test these different ideas about how they
might add value to what we do,” said Toby Garfield, Acting Deputy Director of
the SWFSC, who is helping direct the mission of the fifth saildrone. “We’re
responsible for managing and conserving marine resources, and this all adds to
the long-term data that helps us do that effectively.”
NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Fisheries Science
Center has been testing Saildrone technology, along with NOAA Research's
Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Alaska for the past three years to
gather oceanographic data, acoustic data on endangered North Pacific right
whales, information on walleye pollock, and for prey surveys within the
foraging range of a declining population of northern fur seals. This year, the
focus in Alaska will be on studying abundance and distribution of Arctic cod in
the Chukchi Sea.