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Fishery Targets Scientific Data
by Andrea Cohen, MIT Sea Grant
New England fishermen accustomed to hauling
in cod and flounder may soon find themselves with a new, valuable-if
non-edible-catch: scientific data. Both fishermen and researchers
rely on oceanographic and meteorological reporting to perform their
jobs, and both agree that the Northeast waters suffer from a dearth
of data needed for such forecasting. So, in a project funded by
the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP), several fishermen
are now having their boats outfitted with instruments to gather
information and transmit it back to shore in real-time fashion.
The project, called FleetLink, is a collaborative effort involving
researchers from MIT Sea Grant, New Hampshire Sea Grant, WHOI, and
Clearwater Instrumentation, Inc. of Watertown, Mass.
Glenna and Jacob will soon gather data along with ground
fish. Photo: courtesy of Bob Kohl
"There is a need for much better information
on weather, sea-state, oceanographic conditions, commercial harvest
data, and fishing conditions in the coastal waters of the United
States," says Ann Bucklin, director of New Hampshire Sea Grant and
the principal investigator for the project. Fishermen, resource
managers and regulators, and the oceanographic research community
all rely on such information, which is currently collected during
oceanographic research efforts, National Marine Fisheries Service
(NMFS) assessment surveys, operational Navy activities, and National
Weather Service coverage. However, she explains, these kinds of
activities cannot provide synoptic coverage of large regions and
rarely use near-real-time telemetry. Conversely, the widespread
temporal/spatial distribution of commercial fishing vessels makes
them ideal platforms from which to gather basic information for
coastal monitoring, modeling, and prediction. And, notes Bucklin,
compared with other coastal ocean observing systems, fishing vessels
have the advantage of mobility, flexibility, and concentration in
regions of highest human usage, where weather data are most needed.
Up until now, with limited cooperation between
the fishing community, government agencies, and the ocean research
community, fishing vessels have been little used in gathering data.
This project aims to change that, says Cliff Goudey, director of
MIT Sea Grant's Center for Fisheries Engineering Research(CFER),
which has led the hardware integration and software development
for the project. "It's really a win-win situation," states
Goudey. "The National Weather Service and other forecasters
need better data, and fishermen need better weather forecasting."
The challenge, he says, was figuring out how to turn fishing boats
into reliable scientific reporting platforms.
A key component, says Goudey, was designing
a system that would operate independently of fishermen, allowing
them to concentrate on their fishing. "You're not going to
turn fishermen into a fully functional weather station," he
concedes, "but there are things that can be measured with sensors.
By putting a suite of highly accurate sensors on a boat and transmitting
that information back to shore, they can be working as fully functional
observatories without the fishermen even having to get involved."
These meteorological sensors are of the same
type that would be found on a NOAA weather buoy and measure sea-surface
temperature, wind direction and speed, temperature, humidity, and
barometric pressure. One particularly unique sensor is attached
to fishing gear and moves up and down with the nets, recording temperature
vs. depth much like the sensors that a research vessel would use
when trying to get deep water temperatures. When the gear and sensor
return to the surface, the data is immediately transferred by a
radio link to the onboard FleetLink hardware for processing and
transmittal to shore.
Thus far, the researchers have outfitted Craig
Pendelton's boat, the Susan and Caitlin, out of Portland Maine.
While at sea, the vessel continuously collects meteorological data,
which is relayed hourly, via satellite, to COMSAT, a global satellite
communication system. COMSAT, in turn, sends the information, via
email, to Bob Groman, an information systems specialist at the U.S.
GLOBEC Georges Bank Program at WHOI. Groman can then send weather
information to the National Weather Service. FleetLink also allows
captains to record their catch data by species and pounds. For now,
this data is turned into a Hail Report that Groman forwards to the
Portland Fish Exchange, where Pendleton's dragger normally sells
his fish. "Such detailed Hail Reports really help the exchange
and the boat owner get top dollar for their fish", says Goudey.
"Ultimately, all of us involved in the project hope that the
real-time catch data available through FleetLink will also allow
better, more responsive fisheries management."
Though the system is still under development,
a second boat, the Glenna and Jacob, of Fairhaven, Mass., is about
to join FleetLink. Owner Bob Kohl trawls for groundfish and will
broaden FleetLink's coverage. A third vessel will complete the initial
pilot installations. "Once we get all three boats up and running,"
explains Goudey, "there's a fair chance that we'll have a continuous
presence out there."
For the fishermen, who are keen on getting better
forecasting, the opportunity to outfit their boats with better instrumentation
and communication tools also positions them to get involved with
further fisheries research. And the project has also demonstrated
other ways that improved communication can help fishemen. For instance,
with FleetLink, in addition to a fisherman being able to report
catches to shore, a vessels broker can keep the boat up to
date on fish price fluctuations. In this way, a boat can avoid targeting
a species for which the demand has suddenly dropped.
Both Goudey and Bucklin are optimistic that
FleetLink will result in a better, largely automatic, and near real-time
method of reporting offshore weather, climate, ocean, and fisheries
data for use by a wide variety of communities. And in doing so,
it should also bring together oceanographers, private entrepreneurs,
fishermen, and federal agency representatives in a new spirit of