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
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.
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.
The trawl net as seen in the picture below is being set off the aft 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.
I just have to include one more view of the trawl net from the bridge as it is pulled behind the boat.
The next image shows the path that the net was pulled through the water.
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.
Below is a picture of some fish as they enter the trawl net and move towards the codend.
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.
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 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.