Laura Guertin: Collecting Data: Acoustic Survey, June 19, 2023

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Laura Guertin

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

June 10 – June 22, 2023

Mission: 2023 Summer Acoustic-Trawl Survey of Walleye Pollock in the Gulf of Alaska

Geographic Area of Cruise: Islands of Four Mountains area, to Shumagin Islands area
Location (2PM (Alaska Time), June 18): 55o 15.3391′ N, 160o 17.8682′ W

Data from 2PM (Alaska Time), June 18, 2023
Air Temperature: 8.9 oC
Water Temperature (mid-hull): 7.7oC
Wind Speed: 4 knots
Wind Direction: 182 degrees
Course Over Ground (COG): 356 degrees
Speed Over Ground (SOG): 12 knots

Date: June 19, 2023

Acoustic fisheries surveys seek to estimate the abundance and distribution of fish in a particular area of the ocean. In my case, this Summer Survey is looking at walleye pollock in the Gulf of Alaska. How is this accomplished? Well, it’s not through this method:

The Alaska walleye pollock is widely distributed in the North Pacific Ocean with the largest concentrations in the eastern Bering Sea. For this expedition, Oscar Dyson is traveling to specific regions in the Gulf of Alaska and running transects perpendicular to the bathymetry/contours (which are not always perpendicular to the shore) to take measurements using acoustics and targeted trawling to determine the abundance and distribution of walleye pollock which informs stock assessment and management models. For this blog post, let’s focus on how and why we can use acoustics to locate fish.

A map of the distribution of walleye pollock in the waters around Alaska. Alaska is centered in this map, but not disconnected from adjacent portions of Canada, and portions of Russia are visible to the east. Colors representing topography are visible, emphasized on the land of Alaska and depicted faintly on Canada and Russia. The ocean is depicted as a solid blue. We see latitude and longitude lines at ten degree intervals. We can see labels for the Beaufort Sea (north of Alaska), Chukchi Sea (northwest), Bering Sea (west), Bristol Bay (southwest), Gulf of Alaska (south and southeast.) The polygon representing the distribution of pollock is shaded with diagonal red lines. It starts in the Chukchi Sea, extends southwest out to the Bering Sea, and curves around the Aleutian Islands, hugging the coastline around the Gulf of Alaska.
Walleye pollock (Gadus chalcogrammus) are distributed broadly in the North Pacific Ocean and eastern and western Bering Sea. In the Gulf of Alaska, pollock are considered as a single stock separate from those in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.  Image from Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
A screenshot of an electronic nautical chart of the area around the Alaska Peninsula. Overlain on the chart are straight blue lines connecting blue points in a boxy meandering path in and out from the coastline, west to east. A few segments are red instead of blue.
An snapshot of a nautical chart with transects plotted. The first transect was run during Leg 1 on June 14 at the furthest location to the west, then the ship worked its way back east with approximately 40 nautical miles between transects. Once Oscar Dyson reached the Shumagin Islands, survey work shifted into this area..

Our story starts with the fish itself. Alaska walleye pollock have a swim bladder. The swim bladder is an internal organ filled with gas that allows a fish to maintain its buoyancy and stability at depth.

One interesting effect of the swim bladder is that it also functions as a resonating chamber that can produce and receive sound through sonar technology. This connection was first discovered in the 1970s, when low-frequency sound waves in the ocean come in contact with swim bladders and they resonated much like a tuning fork and return a strong echo (see WHOI’s Listening for Telltale Echoes from Fish).

illlustrated diagram of the internal anatomy of a boney fish. The swim bladder is located in the middle of the fish, beneath the long, skinny kidney and behind the stomach.
Internal anatomy of a boney fish. From Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Illustration of a survey ship on the ocean surface, with the ocean cutaway so that we can see a cone of sound pulses extending out from the ship's hull to the ocean floor. A school of fish is depicted in the middle of the water column, in the cone of sound.
The sound pulses travel down into the water column, illustrated by the white cones here, and bounce back when encountering resistance. (from NOAA Fisheries)

NOAA Fisheries uses echo sounding, which works by emitting vertical pulses of sound (often referred to as pings), and measuring the return strength and recording the time for the signal to leave and then return. Anything having a different density from the surrounding water (in our case – fish, plankton, air bubbles, the seafloor) can return a signal, or “echo”.

The strength or loudness of the echo is affected by how strongly different ocean elements reflect sound and how far away the source of the element is. The seafloor usually makes the strongest echo because it is composed of rock which has a density different than the density of water. In fish, the swim bladder provides a contrast from the water. In addition, each fish species has a unique target strength or amount of sound reflected to the receiver. The size and shape of the swim bladder influence the target strength. There is a different target strength to length relationship for each species of fish – the larger the fish, the greater the strength of the returning echo.

It’s important to note that echo sounders cannot identify fish species, directly or indirectly. The only way we know which fish species is causing a signal is based on trawl catch composition. There is nothing within the acoustic data that lets us identify fish species, even with the catch data. This is a subtle, but important, distinction. Acoustic data, particularly calibrated acoustic data, in tandem with the information from the trawl, definitely allows us to count fish.

Where is the echo sounder on Oscar Dyson? Look at the figure in the next section of this post – it’s a sketch of NOAA Ship Rainier, but the placement of the echo sounder is the same for Dyson. You can see a rectangular “board” that is extended down from the center of the ship. This is called – what else – the center board! Attached to the bottom of the center board are the echo sounders. When lowered, the echo sounders sit at 9 meters below the level of the sea (~4 meters below the bottom hull of the ship).

Did you know… Southern Resident killer whales use their own echolocation clicks to recognize the size and orientation of a Chinook’s swim bladder? Researchers report that the echo structure of the swim bladders from similar length but different species of salmon were different and probably recognizable by foraging killer whales. (reported in Au et al., 2010)

It starts with a calibration

Typical setup of the standard target and weight beneath the echo sounder. (from NOAA Fisheries)

Before we can begin collecting data, we need to calibrate the echo sounder. The calibration involves a standard target (a tungsten carbide sphere) with a known target strength. The calibration needs to be completed in waters that are calm and without significant marine life for the best results.

The sphere is suspended below the ship’s hull using monofilament lines fed through downriggers attached to ship railings. One downrigger is in line with the echo sounder on the starboard side, and the other two on the port side. This creates a triangle that suspends the sphere in the center of the echo sounder’s sound beam. By tightening and loosening the lines, the sphere can be positioned under the center of the sound beam and can also be moved throughout the beam. By doing an equipment calibration at the beginning and end of a survey, we can ensure the accuracy of our data.

  • What looks like a long fishing rod attached to a ship's rail on the ocean
  • Two people holding a ball on string on a ship
  • Shiny ball being lowered over side of ship

For further exploration

NOAA Ocean Service – Ocean Facts – How do scientists locate schools of fish?

Discovery of Sound in the Sea – How is sound used to locate fish?

NOAA Fisheries – Acoustic Echosounders–Essential Survey Equipment and Acoustic Hake Survey Methods on the West Coast

NOAA Ocean Service – Ocean Facts – What is sonar?

Science – Sounds like my favorite fish – killer whales differentiate salmon species by their sonar echoes

NOAA Fisheries – Sound Strategy: Hunting with the Southern Residents, Part 2

The Pew Charitable Trusts – Advanced Sonar Technology Helps NOAA Count Anchovy

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