NOAA Fisheries’ two West Coast Science laboratories are joining forces with the
Alameda, Calif., company Saildrone Inc. to test the first use of autonomous, wind and
solar-powered vehicles to gather essential data on West Coast fish populations,
including commercially valuable species such as hake, sardine, and anchovy.
Two saildrones will launch from Neah Bay, Wash., and three will launch from
Saildrone’s home base in Alameda in late June. The drones will undertake different
missions, all related to improving the efficiency and accuracy of fisheries stock
assessments off the West Coast. Stock assessments make estimates of fish
populations, which the Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries use
in setting fishing rules and limits for the commercial fishing industry.
Saildrone off the coast of California. Courtesy Saildrone Inc.
Four of the saildrones will duplicate the path of the NOAA Fisheries ship Reuben
Lasker as it collects data on populations of sardine, anchovy and other small fishes,
to also survey hake, a deep-water species that is one of the West Coast’s most
valuable commercial fisheries. Two of these drones will launch from Neah Bay and
two from Alameda. Scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC)
in Seattle and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) will work with Saildrone to
manage the research. Scientists can adjust the drones’ assignments in real time.
“This a real opportunity for us to test new and likely better ways of collecting data
that informs some of our most important decisions on fisheries management,” said
Larry Hufnagle, a NWFSC research scientist who will help direct the mission.
A fifth saildrone will explore different approaches to improving the accuracies and
efficiencies of future stock assessments. Scientists from the Southwest Fisheries
Science Center (SWFSC) in La Jolla, Calif., will help manage the mission with
Saildrone. These experiments have four objectives.
- Collect data closer to shore than NOAA ships can safely navigate, to estimate
fish in shallow water.
- Survey ahead of the ship, to enable the ship focus on the most productive
- Study the same area on multiple days, to study the vertical-migration and
schooling behaviors of various fish species.
- Survey fish stocks as they migrate past a repeated saildrone transect, to
improve the efficiency of ecosystem assessments.
The SWFSC conducts stock assessments of small pelagic fishes such as sardines,
mackerels, and anchovies.
The saildrones can transmit some data each day, but full details will be downloaded
from the vehicles at the end of the mission. The saildrones are designed to remain
independently in the field for up to a year, although the four-saildrone mission will
run up to 100 days, and the fifth saildrone may be deployed for up to six months. A
saildrone typically travels at less than two knots, or a couple miles per hour, while
the ship travels at 10 knots, leading to the use of multiple autonomous vehicles to
cover the ship’s survey course.
The efforts will answer questions of whether autonomous data collection can
improve the effectiveness and efficiency of fisheries management on the West Coast.
If the saildrones can add more complete data or make better use of the data
collected by ships, they have potential to increase the precision and accuracy of
NOAA Fisheries and DFO stock estimates.
Scientists noted, however, that there are tradeoffs between the use of ships and
autonomous vehicles in terms of time, and the suite of data that can be collected by
“We’re fortunate that Saildrone has been flexible enough to figure out ways to test
these different ideas about how they might add value to what we do,” said Toby
Garfield, Acting Deputy Director of the SWFSC, who is helping direct the mission of
the fifth saildrone. “We’re responsible for managing and conserving marine
resources, and this all adds to the long-term data that helps us do that effectively.”
NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Fisheries Science Center has been testing Saildrone technology, along with NOAA Research's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Alaska for the past three years to gather oceanographic data, acoustic data on endangered North Pacific right whales, information on walleye pollock, and for prey surveys within the foraging range of a declining population of northern fur seals. This year, the focus in Alaska will be on studying abundance and distribution of Arctic cod in the Chukchi Sea.
The launch of Saildrones along the West Coast demonstrates NOAA Fisheries’ continued commitment to embrace new technologies to maximize efficiencies and advance its mission.
This launch is part of a flotilla of 11 saildrones to deploy to the Arctic and Pacific for earth science missions as part of NOAA's expanding use of the cutting-edge technology to advance fisheries, weather and climate science.
A saildrone cruises next to a NOAA research vessel during earlier trials in Alaska. Courtesy Saildrone Inc.