Aug 15 2017

Fishermen See ‘Science in Action’ Aboard NOAA Survey Ship


Each spring and early summer, scientists set out along the West Coast aboard NOAA vessel Reuben Lasker to survey coastal pelagic species, or CPS, which includes small schooling fish such as northern anchovy, Pacific sardine, and jack and Pacific mackerels.

This year, with the help of West Coast fishermen, the scientists tested a new approach to extend their reach into nearshore waters to improve the accuracy of the survey results. The collaboration involved the fishing vessel Lisa Marie, of Gig Harbor, Washington, and brought two commercial fishermen aboard Lasker for an inside look at NOAA Fisheries surveys that inform stock assessments and guide decisions on how many fish can be caught by West Coast fishermen.

The idea emerged years before when the then-Director of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California,  Cisco Werner, along with Deputy Director Kristen Koch and Fisheries Resources Division Director Gerard DiNardo, discussed the potential collaboration with Mike Okoniewski of Pacific Seafood and Diane Pleschner-Steele of the California Wetfish Producers Association.

Werner has since been named Chief Scientist of NOAA Fisheries.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires NOAA Fisheries to use the best available science to help managers set catch limits and prevent overfishing. Annual surveys, using echosounders to detect and measure the abundances of CPS populations off the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada’s Vancouver Island help fulfill this mandate. NOAA Fisheries also uses trawl catches, and fish-egg samples to help gauge fish reproduction and population trends.

“Acoustic-trawl surveys are our principal tool for monitoring the various species and determining how their abundances, distributions, and sizes are changing,” said David Demer, the Chief Scientist of the survey and leader of the Advanced Survey Technologies Group at Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. “The surveys are very rigorous because they’re very important to our mission.”

To quantify any CPS in the shallow, nearshore waters off Oregon and Washington where Lasker cannot survey, Demer’s group equipped Lisa Marie, calibrated the instrumentation, and sailed with the fishermen to collect and analyze echosounder and sonar data along coastal transects.

Meanwhile Andy Blair, fisherman and owner of Lisa Marie, and Greg Shaughnessy, Chief Operating Officer of Ocean Gold Seafoods in Westport, Washington, spent five days aboard Lasker, learning how NOAA Fisheries scientists collect information that informs NOAA Fisheries stock assessments and leads to CPS harvest decisions by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“I learned a lot, even though I’ve been out fishing for years,” said Shaughnessy. “Now that I’ve been out there and seen how the work is done, I have a much better understanding of the logistics involved and how thorough and rigorous the work really is.”

A spotter pilot flew overhead during parts of the survey looking for and photographing schools of fish from above. The digital images will augment the measurements made aboard Lasker and Lisa Marie.

The vessels and aircraft confirmed each other’s findings when concurrently surveying the same areas.

Okoniewski praised NOAA Fisheries for welcoming commercial fishermen aboard Lasker and explaining the survey methods and science.

“We’ve really opened some new doors with this collaboration,” said Okoniewski, who with Shaughnessy and Blair are members of West Coast Pelagic Conservation Group, a non-profit advocacy and conservation group that represents commercial fishermen and processors. “There’s now a much greater understanding of what we each do and how we do it. It’s kind of a new age in terms of how we see each other.”

Sardine fishing is currently closed off the West Coast because sardine numbers, which are known for boom-bust cycles, have fallen below a protective threshold in a rule that governs harvest. Surveys are essential in determining when the cycle reverses, the population rebounds and, in turn, when fishing for sardines can resume.

“It was a wonderful chance to see science in action,” Shaughnessy wrote in a letter to SWFSC leadership. “From a fisherman’s perspective, the array of acoustic and scientific equipment itself is stunning. However, it was the dedicated men and women that made the real difference. Every crew member was very professional in every sense and yet made us feel included, safe, and at home.”

NOAA Fisheries Reuben Lasker
NOAA Fisheries Vessel Reuben Lasker uses echosounders, sonars, and a trawl net to survey populations of sardine, anchovy, and mackerels. (Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries) 

Lisa Marie resizedFishing Vessel Lisa Marie, based out of Westport, Washington, uses a purse-seine net to fish for sardine and other small fish. (Captain: Ricky Blair; owner: Andy Blair; photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Scott Mau)

CPS Schools aerial view resizedCPS schools (dark patches) in shallow, nearshore water off Washington, and a ship, imaged from an aircraft. (Photo credit: Frank Foode)

Echogram of fish schools 2017 resizedEchogram of fish schools (red patches), one near the sea-surface (top of the image), and multiple others deeper. Also visible are plankton (blue layers), individual fish (discrete blue spots), the seabed (jagged red line), and 50- and 100-m depth markers (dotted lines). (Image credit: NOAA Fisheries/Scott Mau)

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