Germaine Thomas: What Does Acoustic Trawl Sampling Really Tell Us? August 13, 2023

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Germaine Thomas (she/her)

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 7 – August 21, 2023

Mission: Acoustic Trawl Survey (Leg 3 of 3)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean/ Gulf of Alaska
Date: Sunday, August 13, 2023

Weather Data
Lat 59.12 N, Lon 150.11 W
Sky condition: Partly Cloudy
Wind Speed: 13 knots
Wind Direction: 330°
Air Temp: 14 °C

Science and Technology blog

The ocean is a really big place. We have really only mapped about 5% of the ocean bottom. How do we manage fisheries if we have to count fish in an area that is overwhelmingly large? This is where the genius of acoustics and trawl sampling complement each other. The scientists aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson use the echo sounders to find fish or other animals lurking in the ocean and then they can extrapolate and upscale that data to a much larger area which is covered by their transects.

Wait! That is a lot of information using language that folks don’t really use at the dinner table. Could you please explain this in more basic terms? You bet, as a matter of fact in the last couple of days I have been swimming in a sea of new vocabulary, talking to really smart people and trying to keep up with the conversation that it almost makes my head explode. Don’t worry, I am safe. But it’s really impressive how scientists have developed ways to accurately know fish and marine organism populations in the ocean with out having to sample all of it.


Acoustics uses the echo-sounders a lot like a fish finder, but the ones on NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson are much more capable than the type you would find on your boat. The echo-sounders are attached to the bottom of a lowered centerboard—essentially a large keel—in the center of the boat, and they measure five different frequencies with different wavelengths.

A photo of a computer screen displaying five echograms (graphs of recorded echoes) in a row. Germaine has added annotation: a black arrow points at the top of the echogram with the label "Top of the ocean," and another points to a solid, dark red bar midway down the echogram with the label "bottom of the ocean." Dashed marks, angled up or down, are scattered across the echograms, concentrated in upper portions. Germaine has drawn a black circle around some of these, with the label "The colored marks in the oval indicate "backscatter," which could indicate fish or other marine organisms." At the top of each echogram, in its title, Germaine has circled the frequency measured, but they are difficult to read.
View of the 5 different frequencies measured by the echosounders, one in each frame. The darker marks on the screen could be fish, jellyfish, krill or other marine organisms, this is referred to as “backscatter.” The red circles show the different frequencies used to measure the backscatter.

So, if we can see the fish using acoustics, why do scientists need to sample using a trawl net? As you can see above, the marks in the backscatter can show the depth and the approximate shape of objects, but there is not enough detail to tell exactly what kind of organism is present. Most of the scientists on board have a pretty good idea what kind of fish or organisms are present, but the most definitive way to know is to take a trawl sample.

Trawl Sampling

The trawl net as seen in the picture below is being set off the aft deck.

A crewmember wearing a hard hat, life vest, and heavy work overalls stands off to the side as the trawl net is lowered off the aft deck from a large yellow A-frame.
The part that is in the air is called the codend. That is the section of the net where the specimens are ultimately collected.
view of two rollers - like large spools - containing rolled up fishing nets. the net on the right is orange. the net on the left is white and partially paid out.
The trawl is a about 172 meters long and it stored on these rollers on the back deck.

When the trawl is deployed to the depth that the scientists want to sample, the net will funnel fish and other organisms into it. This is called flying the net.

A photo of a monitor screen displaying information about the position of a deployed trawl net. There are three different views, represented by simple line drawings of a boat followed by diagrams of the trawl net and attached lines. In the Top View, we see the shape of a boat from the sky. A straight red line measures the distance between the boat and the opening of the net as 210 m. The net is being dragged at an angle 13 degrees to the right of center. For the side view, there's the shape of a boat on a horizontal line representing the water's surface. A straight red line measures the distance from the water's surface to the top of the net as 21.5 m. There's also a front view, showing the net as a narrow set of lines extending below the front profile of a boat. At top, the screen notes the course at 158 degrees and speed at 4.3 Kn.
The screen above diagrams three different views of the net as it is pulled through the water. You can see that the trawl net was not directly behind the boat and went to a depth of 21.5 m.
photo of a computer screen displaying data about the position of the net, along with a more detailed diagram. Germaine has added arrows to label "The doors help open the net" and "the codend at the end of the net that collects the sample." We can see that the set length measures 457 meters.
In this image you can see the net and how far back it trails behind the Oscar Dyson.

I just have to include one more view of the trawl net from the bridge as it is pulled behind the boat.

A photo of a computer screen showing a 3-d rendering of the deployed trawl net and the following measurements: door depth port - 16.5 m. door depth starboard.- 15.7 m. door spread - 59.4 m. door pitch port - 4.7 degrees. door pitch starboard - 6.1 degrees. headrope horizontal range - 204 m. headrope true bearing - 326.0 degrees. depth - 21.0 m. change meters/minute - -0.2 m.
This image was taken when the crew was bringing the net back into the boat, so the depth is shallower.

The next image shows the path that the net was pulled through the water.

photo of a computer screen displaying an echogram (graph of recorded echoes.) This echogram shows the returns from a single frequency. Germaine has annotated it with arrows pointing to: Header rope or top of the trawl path, and  Footer rope or bottom of the trawl path. Another arrow points to colored specks and reads: The echosounders show backscatter, which could be fish or other organisms.
The acoustics show the backscatter which the scientists make the trawl target. The next step is to process what is captured in the codend of the trawl and see exactly what is present.

Because the trawl is dragged through the water, it catches different organisms at different times. The scientists want to know when the different organisms were caught so they have cleverly attached a camera to the side of the net. Through the camera they can see which type of fish came into the trawl. Ultimately, this links the kind of acoustic backscatter viewed in the echograms recorded during the trawl to exactly the type of organism caught by the trawl.

view of a trapezoidal metal apparatus, containing underwater cameras and floats, attached to a blue trawl net, spread out on deck
The camtrawl: a camera that records the type of fish entering the net and when they enter.

Below is a picture of some fish as they enter the trawl net and move towards the codend.

a photo of a computer screen displaying a black-and-white underwater camera feed. a few fish (pollock) are visible swimming by the net.
The camera is looking across the net as the fish move past. The fish in the picture are pollock, the type of fish we are looking for on this leg of the cruise.

Transect Lines

So how do scientists take this information and extrapolate the data to a broader area? While the Oscar Dyson is out at sea they run transect lines while recording acoustic data. Transect lines are specific paths in the ocean. The picture below shows the transect lines that we plan to do and have done on this leg of the cruise.

a screenshot of an electronic nautical map of the Gulf of Alaska. straight lines extending toward and away from the coast are superimposed across the map.
The red lines are the transects we have done and the blue lines are the transects scientists plan to do in the remainder of this leg of the cruise. If you look closely there are pictures of fish symbols on the transect lines where the ship has made trawl samples.

Using the acoustic data that the echo-sounders provide and verifying the types of fish and other marine organisms through the trawl sampling allows the scientists to predict, with a high level of certainty, the amount and types of marine organisms that are present along the transect lines that were not trawl-sampled. Thus saving the taxpayers money, and allowing fisheries managers to use good data, keeping the fishery viable, and allowing commercial fishing boats to have reasonable catch limits.

Scientist in the Spotlight

Honestly it takes a team to make all of this happen. But, half of our team is sleeping at the moment, I have the night shift from 4pm to 4am, so I am going to introduce one fabulous expert in acoustics and fisheries:

Abigail, wearing a blue hoodie featuring a drawing of a salmon, sits back from a long computer desk with eight computer montiors mounted above and to the side. She smiles at the camera.
Abigail McCarthy in the Acoustics Lab

Abigail McCarthy has been working for MACE: Midwater Assessment and Conservation Engineering Program since 2007. She received her undergraduate degree in Biology from Wellesley College and then obtained a Masters in Fisheries from Oregon State University.

For fun, she surfs and enjoys long-distance prone paddle board races. She has recently found a new love with fly fishing.

Aboard the Ship Oscar Dyson, she is working as a specialist helping to run the acoustics lab.

I asked Abigail what she thought of about her educational experience? She immediately said, “I love learning! High school and college were both a lot of fun.”

What would be a good suggestion for a young aspiring high school student pursuing a degree related to ocean studies or science in general?

Her response was great: “Being curious and working hard is more important than being brilliant. Persistence and determination will get you where you want to be in the future.” Finally, “Learn to code! Become familiar with programing languages like Python and R.”

Hopefully, I answered your burning questions about the use of acoustic trawl sampling, and surveys. Yet, there is so much more to learn. Why not take a trip yourself? Check NOAA’s website out and just apply.

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