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Scientists turn to saildrones to collect fish data along West Coast

New technology could improve accuracy

By Hannah Sievert

EO Media Group

Published on August 22, 2018 12:01AM

Scientists are using saildrones to capture data on fish populations.

Sebastien de Halleux

Scientists are using saildrones to capture data on fish populations.

Saildrones could supplement data collected by traditional research vessels.

Sebastien de Halleux

Saildrones could supplement data collected by traditional research vessels.

PACIFIC OCEAN — When fishermen pull in their hauls of Pacific hake from the ocean this summer, they will know how many fish they can catch while still leaving enough to reproduce for future years.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe their yearly count of fish populations can become even more accurate with the use of a new technology: saildrones.

Since launching two saildrones off Neah Bay in early June and two more out of San Francisco two weeks ago, researchers have been fine-tuning how they use the remotely operated, solar- and wind-powered vehicles that are sailing south along the West Coast.

This is the first time NOAA has tried saildrones for data collection in the Pacific Northwest after experimenting in Alaska. If the 100-day expedition is successful, the technology could become a common way to capture information.

“We’ll make recommendations based on how well it goes,” said Larry Hufnagle, the project lead for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center saildrone project. “Our hopes are very high. We think it’s going to go well.”

Switching technologies

For years, research on yearly fish populations has been conducted primarily from huge research vessels. For now, the bright orange saildrones will supplement the data collected on the manned ships.

“Before we make any changes that would affect survey results, we really have to be certain those changes would be equivalent or better,” Hufnagle said.

Saildrones, produced by Saildrone Inc., are under consideration by NOAA in partnership with the company and Fisheries and Oceans Canada because of what the vehicles can do that research vessels cannot.

Because they are unmanned, the vehicles can be programmed to stay out in the water for as long as a year, without needing to stop for reasons like human illness or breaks.

They can get much closer to the shore than a research vessel, as the vehicles can operate in a depth as shallow as 10 feet.

And they cost less. A research vessel costs $25,000 dollars a day or more to operate. A saildrone costs around $2,500 a day. Though cost is a factor in the consideration, NOAA scientists want to make sure the saildrones are effective data collectors before they start using them extensively.

“We have to balance more than cost because the measurements are important enough to the livelihoods of commercial fishermen,” Hufnagle said.

So far, so good

After a few months at sea, the two saildrones launched in Washington state are now off the coast of Grays Harbor. While NOAA scientists will do a more complete analysis of the data when the expedition is complete, the collection has been so far successful, with only one minor component malfunction that was fixed on shore.

“Like anything else, nothing’s 100 percent,” Hufnagle said. “We’ve had loss of time or malfunctions on ships, too, so it’s nothing to worry about. Their reliability is extremely high.”

When starting the project, NOAA planned for the saildrones to travel transect lines just like research vessels. Transect lines run back and forth from shore for 35 miles, with 10-mile spaces between each line, similar to how someone would push a lawnmower in a backyard.

Whim of the wind

But saildrones are wind-dependent, not power-operated like research vessels. Hufnagle has realized that NOAA will have to consider sea and wave conditions more extensively when they plan transect lines for saildrones in the future, as the vehicles can get buffeted off path. Future transect lines for saildrones may look more like zigzags.

“We’re learning that what we do as survey planning and survey design may not be optimal for a sailing vehicle,” Hufnagle said.

While the technology is still being tested, David Demer, the leader of advanced survey technology at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said that saildrone-only surveys are not a possibility yet. But the testing could lead to saildrones as the primary data source in the future.

“It’s presently difficult to say that saildrone surveys could replace the types of fishery surveys that we conduct presently,” Demer said. “But it’s conceivable that new advances in technology for remotely sensing fish species could evolve, then saildrone-only surveys could then be a possibility.”

The saildrones will sail south from 164 feet to 4,900 feet offshore. Hufnagle was unable to provide the saildrones’ exact locations, as NOAA doesn’t want anyone tampering with them out in the water.

But tourists and locals standing on the shore may be able to see the saildrones pass by the Oregon Coast in the next month if their timing is right.


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