Alaska Fisheries Science Center 2019 Year in Review
Our research supports NOAA Fisheries’ stewardship mission to protect and provide sustainable use of Alaska living marine resources.
Our research supports NOAA Fisheries’ stewardship mission to protect and provide sustainable use of Alaska living marine resources. In doing so, we help provide jobs, strong local economies, resilient coastal communities, and food security for coastal and Alaska Native communities, and the nation.
We study zooplankton, fish, crabs, whales, seals and sea lions, and ecosystems in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea. Combined, these five marine ecosystems span nearly 3.77 million km2, an area larger than the state of California. Sixty percent of U.S. seafood comes from these highly productive waters.
Ensuring Sustainable Fisheries
For the 22nd consecutive year, Dutch Harbor, AK ranked #1 in the nation in terms of the amount of fish landed. The Aleutian Islands and Kodiak ranked third and fourth, respectively.
Alaska fisheries are among the most well-managed and profitable fisheries in the world. This is due in part to good science and strong working relationships with the fishing industry and other stakeholders. Commercial and recreational fishermen, fish processing and retail businesses, resource managers, coastal communities, and Alaska Native subsistence communities, all depend on the data, information, and scientific expertise we provide.
We collect biological, ecological, and environmental data during long-term, standardized research surveys, with the help of NOAA-trained observers on commercial fishing vessels, and through other research activities. In the laboratory and in the field, we study what fish and crabs eat, where they live, and how fast they grow. We input these data into sophisticated computer models to generate estimates of abundance (number of fish or crabs in the population) and predict future trends in those populations. We also provide resource managers with other ecosystem and socio-economic data on fisheries and coastal communities, and recommend acceptable biological catch recommendations.
Our primary responsibility is to provide scientific data, analyses, and expert technical advice to marine resource managers (i.e., the NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Regional Office, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the State of Alaska, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, the Pacific Salmon Commission, U.S./Russian Federation International Consultative Committee, Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group of the Arctic Council, North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, U.S. Arctic Commission, Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, North Pacific Fisheries Commission, and International Whaling Commission), Alaska tribal governments, public stakeholders, and U.S. representatives participating in international fishery and marine mammal negotiations. The work of monitoring and assessing fish, crab, and marine mammal populations, fisheries, and marine ecosystems is mandated by legislation. Key legislation includes the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the U.S Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Resource managers use the information we provide to develop sound management measures ensuring sustainable fisheries with ecological, economic, and socio-cultural benefits for the nation.
2019 Sustainable Fisheries Highlights
Research Surveys and Stock Assessments Support Sustainable Management of Alaska Fisheries
Using commercial fishing and research vessels, we collect biological data to estimate the size of fish stocks in Alaska. In 2019, our scientists spent 4,180 days at sea conducting research surveys to study plankton (plant and animal), juvenile and adult fish and crabs and other species in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea. We collected information on the abundance, sex, size and age of fish. Within a few weeks after the surveys were completed, we used these data to produce fish stock assessments and provide acceptable biological catch recommendations. We produce stock assessments for a total of 54 fish stocks; 30 stocks in the Bering Sea and 24 stocks in the Gulf of the Alaska, many of which are updated annually. Center staff have leadership roles (chair or co-chair) on important science bodies supporting Alaska fisheries management (Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Groundfish Plan Teams, Crab Plan Team, Fishery Ecosystem Plan Team, Scientific and Statistical Committee, Integrated Ecosystem Assessment working group, and Social Science Planning Team). Our science provides a basis for setting total allowable catch limits and preventing overfishing for fisheries in the North Pacific.
Assessing the Value of Resources and Socio-Economic Well-Being of Communities
Having sustainable fisheries is about maintaining healthy fish stocks and profitable fishing businesses, and preserving traditional ways of life for local fishing and Alaska Native communities. We conducted 505 socioeconomic surveys of Alaska fishing participants and businesses, and assessed the socio-economic well-being and level of groundfish dependence of 146 Alaskan communities. We provided this information to resource managers in the form of scientifically sound rapid assessments of each community’s resilience over time.
Process Studies Enhance Stock Assessments
To provide the best science available to support sustainable fisheries management, a balanced research portfolio is necessary to detect and predict changes in species’ abundance and trends. This work is particularly important with rapidly changing environmental conditions and shifting ecosystems in Alaska. To complement survey efforts and the work of fisheries observers, we need to analyze data to further our understanding of fish population dynamics.
In doing so, we can learn a lot about growth and mortality (both natural and human-caused) of fishes to better estimate the size and health of fish stocks. For instance, when we look at stomach contents, we gain insights into fish diets, predator-prey relationships and other factors affecting the productivity of fish stocks.
This year we measured over 408,015 fish, examined 8,355 fish stomachs, and processed 24,792 genetic samples.
Co-Leading National Seafood Trade Working Group
Our staff are co-leading the NOAA Fisheries Seafood Trade Working Group. Formed in late 2018 to provide the agency with trade information and analysis, it is comprised of economists from across the regional science centers. To date, the working group has produced reports and analysis about the seafood trade deficit. Our economists are also involved in a spin-off project modeling seafood demand and national welfare impacts of trade.
Initiatives to Augment Survey Data to Provide Best Available Science for Sustainable Resource Management
Our scientists are conducting research to supplement critical standard survey and fisheries data to inform fish stock assessments and reduce management uncertainty. We do this by developing and deploying innovative acoustic data collection systems (e.g., using drones and seafloor mounted sonar systems) to track fish movements, and marine mammal abundance and supplement expensive ship-based sampling. We are also developing high-resolution coupled biophysical ocean models, increasing cooperative research partnerships with industry and subsistence-based communities to collect biological data, and producing quantitative analyses of the effects of changes in spatial coverage on survey uncertainty. We are collaborating with partners in the private sector and academia to use emerging technologies (e.g. Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, eDNA) to monitor marine resources while improving operating efficiencies. These supplemental efforts are valuable. However, we still need scientists on acoustic and standard bottom trawl surveys and on commercial fishing boats to sample catches and collect needed biological information necessary to support sustainable fisheries management.
Multi-Agency North Pacific Sablefish Research Collaboration
We are participating in a coast-wide sablefish working group with staff from NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The working group discusses research activities and collaborates to analyze fish tagging data across the entire North Pacific. This represents the first major effort to evaluate sablefish on a coast-wide biological scale and to share the results of recent and ongoing sablefish research across management entities. In 2019, the group produced their first paper describing growth gradations across the North Pacific.
International Year of the Salmon
Two scientists from our Auke Bay Laboratories participated in the February-March 2019 International Year of the Salmon survey within the Gulf of Alaska basin. Samples of zooplankton and immature Pacific salmon were collected to look at winter carrying capacity (the number of salmon the ecosystem can support in winter with available food or forage fish) and fitness of salmon (general health). In our laboratory, we are looking at the energy density, lipid (fat), and protein content of collected fish. We are also examining otoliths (ear bones) taken from Pacific salmon during the survey to determine the age of each fish and hatchery component. Using collected tissue samples (e.g., skin) we are applying genetic techniques to determine stock composition. The North Pacific Research Board provided funding to support this effort.
Collecting Data from Commercial Fishing Vessels
In 2019, 385 observers were deployed for 39,932 days in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska, representing nearly half of all sea days observed in the U.S. Observers collected data onboard 401 catcher processors, motherships, and catcher vessels in federal waters off Alaska, as well as at 8 Alaskan fish processing plants. Fisheries observers also record essential information on protected resources including Steller sea lions, killer whales, harbor porpoise, and the endangered short-tailed albatross.
To collect this level of data and provide it for the management of marine resources off Alaska, the North Pacific Observer Program conducted 130 observer preparation classes for 945 observers. Maintaining and improving our training curriculum for sampling protocols and fish identification is a never ending process.
Helping Our International Partners by Providing Science to Manage Halibut
This year, Center staff led the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Interagency Halibut Abundance-Based Management Working Group. We also developed analytical approaches to evaluate bycatch harvest policies for Pacific halibut. We served as conduit between the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the Council promoting the exchange of relevant information among the Commission and the Council, its advisory bodies, and stakeholders.
Voicing the Stories of Women in Alaska Fisheries
Women work to keep fisheries sustainable, communities resilient and traditional knowledge alive in Alaska. Working with partners, we documented women’s experience through their own stories. We found that Alaska women's experience and knowledge are fundamental to the social, cultural, economic, and ecological sustainability of Bristol Bay salmon fisheries. The study used oral history and visual ethnography methods to provide a means for women to voice their stories about the importance of fishery resources in their communities. We used this approach to capture women’s knowledge to inform fisheries management, preserve cultural diversity, and share the findings with communities. The study was conducted in collaboration with the Bristol Bay Native Association.
From California to the Arctic Ocean, we study the ecology, behavior, life history, and population dynamics of whales, seals, porpoises, and sea lions. Our scientists conduct surveys from air, land, and sea using innovative technologies such as unmanned aerial systems and remote cameras to collect images and biological information. We use sophisticated acoustic and satellite tracking technologies to listen for, find, and collect data on whales, seals, and sea lions. The goal of this work is to increase scientific understanding of how these populations are doing by monitoring trends in abundance and distribution. We do this to ensure their protection under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
2019 Protected Resources Highlights
Southeast Alaska Harbor Porpoise Survey
In Southeast Alaska, we are working to gain a better understanding of harbor porpoise population structure and produce a new abundance estimate. This information will help us to assess the impact on the harbor porpoise population of the incidental catch of harbor porpoise by the salmon gillnet fisheries and whether it is sustainable. In July and August 2019, we conducted a 26-day ship-based survey in the inland waters of Southeast Alaska. We surveyed over 1,687 nautical miles and recorded 202 sightings of 323 individual harbor porpoise. We also sighted 1,059 other marine mammals, including whales, porpoises, and seals. We also collected 24 water samples for e-DNA analysis. We will use data to determine whether one or more populations of harbor porpoise inhabit these inland waters. We will also estimate the abundance of other species known to interact with local fisheries (e.g., Dall’s porpoise and humpback whales). From this research, resource managers will be able to determine whether management actions are required to protect these species.
New Techniques, Tools and Technology to Study Endangered Cook Inlet Beluga Whales
We are continuing research on the endangered Cook Inlet beluga population, a Species in the Spotlight. In 2019, we expanded our Unmanned Aerial System survey during three sampling periods (July to September). Our goal was to test whether it was possible to both collect images and identify individual species in each image with the help of new camera systems and Artificial Intelligence (AI). This was a pilot study to see if data quality would be good enough for use in our models to estimate abundance. During the survey, we conducted 89 flights over 19 groups of belugas, and collected 27,217 overhead photographs. After preliminary analysis of photographic data, we were able to reliably identify newborn calves by measuring their relative length. With this information, we then can estimate annual calf production, an important index for learning about population health and growth. Our team also collected 14 biopsy samples of Cook Inlet beluga whales, bringing the 4-year total number of biopsy samples to 53 (~1 in 7 in the population). Biopsy sampling is critical to understand sex ratio (19 of 39 whales sampled from 2016-18 were female for a 50:50 sex ratio), pregnancy rates (four of 10 females sampled from 2016-17 were pregnant), and genetic information. In 2019, we also deployed 25 acoustic recorders in Cook Inlet, including the first-ever deployments in upper Knik Arm and 6 Mile River in Turnagain Arm. Both of these areas are important habitat for Cook Inlet beluga. Recorders recovered in 2019 contain 216,320 hours of recordings, with 1,574,617 acoustic detections of belugas. This will tell us more about beluga movements throughout the Inlet and potential impacts of noise and human activities.
Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) Survey
During July through October, in collaboration with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, we conducted aerial surveys for marine mammals in the eastern Chukchi and western Beaufort seas. This was our 41st consecutive field season. Our primary objectives for this long-term monitoring program have been to monitor the distribution, relative density, behavior, and habitat of marine mammals in the Alaskan Arctic, including bowhead, gray, fin, humpback, minke, and killer whales, belugas, harbor porpoise, walruses, and polar bears. In 2019, we collected additional imagery data to evaluate gray whale body condition on their foraging grounds. This is part of an international investigation into the gray whale unusual mortality event that occurred along the U.S. west coast and Alaska this year. We collected marine mammal carcass sighting data and imagery and reviewed it to document where and when carcasses were found, assess body condition, and document entanglement or predation scars.
Special Bowhead Whale Aerial Survey in the Chukchi Sea
During August 2019, in collaboration with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, we conducted an aerial survey to estimate the abundance of Western Arctic bowhead whales between Amundsen Gulf and Point Barrow. From this, we expect to be able to produce the first bowhead whale abundance estimate since 2011. We flew 159 flights, 556 hours total, and 142,588 km total. We observed 711 bowhead whales (including 112 calves), 336 gray whales (including 13 calves), 19 fin whales, 23 humpback whales (including 1 calf), 9 minke whales, 15 killer whales (including 2 calves), 3,681 belugas (including 332 calves), 71 bearded seals, and 98,862 walruses (including 420 calves).
Efforts to Provide Needed Science to Help Recover Endangered Steller Sea Lions
In June-July, we completed an aerial photographic survey of Steller sea lion rookeries and haul outs in southeast Alaska and the Gulf of Alaska. We were fortunate to have unusually calm, clear weather in the area and were able to complete the survey early. The results of this survey add to our understanding of population trends for the endangered western distinct population segment of Steller sea lions. We are providing collected data to resource managers at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Regional Office and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to inform the population’s Recovery Plan. The 2019 aerial survey is especially relevant given the decline observed in the 2017 sea lion count, a survey that is conducted by our scientists on the ground in the rookeries.
Assessing Growing Population of Northern fur seals on Bogoslof Island
Bogoslof Island is a recently active volcano that erupted 52 times over 9 months, ending in August 2017. It is also the site of a highly productive northern fur seal haul out and rookery. In August 2019, 11 scientists traveled to the island to survey the northern fur seal population. We conducted traditional ground surveys to estimate pup production and unmanned aerial surveys to compare the two methods. Early estimates suggest that the population of northern fur seals has continued to increase since the last survey in 2015 despite the eruptions and dramatically changed landscape. NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Regional Office will use the population abundance estimate along with similar estimates for the Pribilof Islands to understand whether the overall population is recovering.
Partnership Helps in Studies of Harbor Seal Populations
We continued to collaborate with the Aleut Community of St Paul to count harbor seals on the Pribilofs Islands. This is the smallest and perhaps most isolated stock in Alaska. Through this collaboration, we hope to develop a long-term plan for community monitoring to generate needed data for our harbor seal stock assessment.
First Recording of North Pacific Right Whale Song
This year, one of our marine mammal scientists discovered that the critically endangered eastern North Pacific right whale sings. This is the smallest right whale population in the world, only 30 animals are thought to remain in the population. Now it appears they are the only one known to sing. Other right whale populations typically restrict their vocalizations to individual calls rather than the patterned phrasing that is singing. We used acoustic moorings deployed to collect a variety of environmental and oceanographic data to collect information for this study.
Listening for Whales in the Arctic Year Round
Passive acoustic monitoring is the best tool for large-scale, year-round assessment of marine mammals in space and time, and ambient noise levels, especially in the harsh conditions of the enormous Alaska Region. We have been partnering with NOAA Research’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) since 2007 to deploy and retrieve around 20 year-round passive acoustic recorder moorings (mostly BOEM-funded, but recently NAVY and NOAA funded) in the Bering, Beaufort, and Chukchi Seas in close proximity to oceanographic moorings. We have observed differences in the timing of Arctic and subarctic species movements between the Bering and Chukchi Seas in the past couple of years.These differences appear to be related to sea ice formation and retreat. Collected data are critical for understanding whale movements that can be used for decision-making in Alaskan waters. Whales and other marine mammals are excellent proxies for ecosystem change, since they respond to shifts in abundance and distribution of plankton and small fish species.
Monitoring a Changing Environment
Many factors, both natural and human-caused, affect populations of fish, crab and marine mammals and marine ecosystems. Understanding and predicting the health and productivity of marine ecosystems informs sustainable development.
In the laboratory and in the field, our scientists broke new ground in understanding more about Alaska ecosystems and how a changing marine environment may affect marine species. Having information like this at the ready enables policymakers and decision-makers to identify ways to sustain these valuable resources while capitalizing on the economic opportunities derived from them.
2019 Monitoring Changing Environment Highlights
Studying the Effect of Warm Ocean Temperatures on Pacific Cod
Several Pacific cod studies by scientists from our Newport, Kodiak and Auke Bay, and Seattle facilities are underway. At our Auke Bay Laboratories, we are evaluating the thermal effects on spawn timing and early growth of Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod and their implications for survival and recruitment (ability to grow to reach maturity). In particular, the study looks at how the warm blob affected spawn timing, settlement and growth in their first year of life. Another study by scientists at our Newport and Seattle facilities found that the effects of the blob (a marine heatwave from 2014-2016) affected stock reproductive potential (the potential number of fish in their first year of life that will make it to adulthood) and had significant impacts on spawning habitat. This study has important implications for how the Pacific cod stock in the Gulf of Alaska and the fisheries that rely on them may be affected by continued warming conditions.
Ocean Acidification Could Affect Pacific Cod Development
At our Newport Laboratory we conducted a study showing that larval Pacific cod response to elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) levels varies depending on its stage of development. Laboratory experiments specifically examined larval cod behavior, growth, and lipid composition (the fats needed for storing energy and building muscles). As excess CO2 from the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean, pH is lowered and the ocean increases in acidity, in a process called ocean acidification. Studies like this are important because most marine fish mortality occurs at the larval stage of development and the high-latitude oceans, where Pacific cod and other important commercial fisheries occur, are expected to be among the most vulnerable to ocean acidification.
Monitoring Ecosystem Changes after Several Consecutive Years of Unusually Warm Temperatures in the Bering and Chukchi Seas and Gulf of Alaska
Over the past four years, the North Pacific Ocean has experienced sustained abnormally warm ocean temperatures. As a result, U.S. Arctic and subarctic marine ecosystems are undergoing dramatic changes. Through our long-term and expanded survey efforts, we have already documented significant shifts in plankton, fish, crab, and marine mammal populations. Monitoring these areas year after year is critical to understand whether changes are short-term or permanent.
- In 2019, we participated in the final survey of the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Project. This is a four-year international collaboration (with funding from the North Pacific Research Board) to study Chukchi Sea oceanography and the food web using surface and bottom trawls, hydroacoustics and plankton nets. The survey found abundant age-0 walleye pollock, unusual this far north. This raises important questions about whether pollock are spawning farther north than previously known or has occurred in the past.
- We also conducted several surveys in the northern Bering Sea to study the impacts of loss of sea ice on this important ecosystem. We observed changes in the entire marine food chain. Overall, there were reductions in high-fat copepods (a type of zooplankton), which are key prey species; continued high abundance of normally more southern commercial fish species (e.g., Pacific cod and pollock) and pink and chum salmon; and low levels of juvenile Yukon River Chinook salmon and the Arctic forage species (e.g., Arctic cod) that are more typical of this region. We want to understand how warming in this region impacts the immigration and residency of sub-arctic species as well as pelagic (mid-water column) versus benthic (near the seafloor) production. This is an important research question to address to help us determine if the shallow northern Bering Sea ecosystem can support the influx of adult Pacific cod and pollock over the past four years. Without the increased understanding of adult pollock and Pacific cod stock condition and distribution, resource managers also may have found it necessary to take a more conservative approach to setting catch limits for these two important commercial fish stocks in the Bering Sea in recent years.
- This year in the Gulf of Alaska several groundfish species’ abundances were estimated to be at or near the same low levels as observed during the 2017 survey. We study fish at various stages of development from eggs and larvae all the way to adults. Surface and bottom temperatures were comparable to those warm temperatures observed during the 2015 survey when the "Blob" marine heat wave affected the Gulf of Alaska. We also saw high numbers of jellyfish. The last time we observed this many jellyfish was in the early 1990s.
- These surveys are providing critical information for resource managers to ensure fish and crab stock sustainability and economic profitability of important U.S. commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. They are also vital to coastal and Alaska Native communities who are concerned about changes to their food security, culture, and traditional way of life.
New Study Shows Arctic Cod Development, Growth, Survival Impacted by Oil Exposure
Arctic cod is an important source of food for whales, seals, fish, birds, and humans in Arctic ecosystems. A team of U.S. and Norwegian scientists, including staff from our Newport Laboratory, found that Arctic cod could be seriously affected by small amounts of crude oil released into surface waters. For Arctic cod in its early stages of development, crude oil can be lethal if exposure is high enough. Some exposed Arctic cod eggs die not long after hatching due to toxicity. At lower exposure levels, others experience developmental abnormalities affecting their survival when they become larvae and juveniles. These new findings can help resource managers project how Arctic cod populations will respond to future oil spills. This will improve estimates of environmental risk and guide the development of mitigation measures, the latter to reduce the likelihood of accidents in forage fish spawning habitats. In the event of a future spill, the data from this study can also be used to assess potential losses (injury) to cod and the food webs they support.
Continued Progress in Advancing Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management in Alaska
In 2019, we led a successful effort to help the North Pacific Fishery Management Council complete its Bering Sea Fisheries Ecosystem Plan, and the Alaska Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management Plan Roadmap.
We also held a workshop (the Spring Preview of Ecosystem and Economic Conditions (PEEC)) attended by 40+ scientists from across the Center to develop annual “early warning indicators” of changing ecosystem conditions in Alaska for fisheries managers and scientists. This is the first in a series of planned annual meetings to exchange information on early physical, biological, and economic conditions. The goal is to provide this information in the fall, soon after surveys have concluded to scientists who develop stock assessments and provide acceptable biological catch recommendations to fisheries managers. Resource managers then use this information to determine how much the fishing industry can catch in the next fishing year without jeopardizing the sustainability of the stock. We were able to provide timely information to resource managers this year about the sudden drop in abundance of Eastern Bering Sea Pacific cod and continued low numbers of young Pacific cod in the central Gulf of Alaska.
For 24 years, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center has produced annual Ecosystem Status Reports to compile and summarize information about the status of Alaska Marine ecosystems. The ecosystem indicators developed for this report show changes in a range of physical and biological indicators over time including ocean temperature, primary productivity, and higher trophic level consumers. This year, we updated 51 indicators and added seven new ones to the reports.
Understanding Fish Habitat: Rockfish Love Structure
Our scientists found that Alaska rockfishes are more abundant when vertical structures such as rock, coral, and sponges are present. Corals and sponges add structure to areas with minimal rocky formations, creating a more complex habitat for rockfish. To complete the study, we used underwater stereo camera systems to collect images of habitat use. These findings will help resource managers in their efforts to manage rockfishes, deep-sea corals, and sponges effectively.
We are always looking for more efficient ways to explore the ocean environment and to track fish catches. We collaborate with fishermen, engineering and software companies and academic institutions to design and test new technologies and better, more cost-effective methods for gathering data. Through these efforts, we are able to explore areas of the ocean that are difficult or costly to survey with traditional research methods.
2019 Innovative Technologies Highlights
Innovators in Fish Ageing Techniques
We are leading the NOAA Fisheries National Strategic Initiative on Rapid Estimation of Fish Age Using Near Infrared Technology. We hosted a Fourier Transform Near Infrared Spectroscopy Workshop that was attended by 60 participants from four countries.
We also used this new technology to estimate the age of pollock otoliths. We saw up to a 600% gain in efficiency compared to manual ageing techniques, with virtually no compromise in data quality. This technology has the potential to define the future direction of many ageing laboratories in the U.S.
In 2019, we analyzed over 45,000 fish in our ageing laboratory to track the health, growth rates and status of various age groups of fish over time. Understanding how long fish live and the different ages in a fish population is an important indicator of overall fish population health. Age data are a critical piece of information used by stock assessment scientists to develop reliable estimates of fish population size over time.
Fish age information enables us to evaluate fish survival in light of recent environmental shifts. Otoliths provide an annual record of a fish’s life (like tree rings, a ring is laid down on the otolith annually). By looking at historic data, otoliths collected hundreds of years ago, we can observe environmental conditions like drought or temperature extremes by examining otolith rings and the distance between them. The greater the distance the faster the fish grew. This work may help us to predict how fish stocks may respond under continued warming conditions.
New Higher Definition Seafloor Maps Reveal Habitat Sculpted by Ancient Glaciers Providing Insight into the Habitat that Supports the Western Gulf of Alaska’s Rich Marine Resources.
Together with partners at the U.S. Geological Survey, we developed new seafloor maps that show, for the first time, the course of ancient ice masses. These ice masses shaped essential habitat for the western Gulf of Alaska’s abundant fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. We wove together historical and modern data, and we created a highly detailed view of the seafloor and its geological features. The western Gulf of Alaska is both ecologically and economically important. Shelikof Strait, a major feature of the region, holds special importance as the spawning ground for the Gulf’s biggest stock of walleye pollock. Together with other Alaska pollock stocks, they are the target of the world’s largest fishery. Shelikof Strait is also home to rare species like the mysterious Pacific sleeper shark. Within the Gulf of Alaska bottom trawl survey area, almost half of all sleeper shark occurrences are in Shelikof Strait. Despite its importance, until now much of the western Gulf of Alaska had not been mapped in sufficient detail to describe the geological features of this vital habitat. To create and analyze new maps, scientists combined their respective geographical and geological expertise. The results will help scientists better understand the habitat requirements of many species and the oceanographic processes that influence their success.
Successful Efforts to Study Ice Seals, Polar Bears, Harbor Seals and Fur Seals Using Aerial Imaging Systems and Artificial Intelligence
Collecting images of marine mammals to learn more about their health, distribution and abundance has long been a cornerstone of NOAA Fisheries marine mammal field research. We are increasingly using new technologies including manned and unmanned aerial systems, and remote cameras to study marine mammals. Millions of images are collected annually. To more fully integrate the use of these technologies into standard research operations, we also need to improve the speed and cost-effectiveness of image data analysis. We are doing this with the help of partners with expertise in AI or Machine Learning including Microsoft.
This year we designed and tested a new imaging system to use during our manned aerial surveys for ice seals and polar bears. We tested it over a three-week period near Kotzebue and Deadhorse, Alaska. Results are promising for collecting color, thermal, and ultraviolet imagery and using machine-learning methods to detect, classify, and count marine mammals. It will also enable us to process the millions of images collected during a single survey of the ice in a whole Arctic sea basin such as the Bering, Chukchi, or Beaufort more efficiently.
We conducted aerial surveys for harbor seals in the Aleutian Islands, Iliamna Lake, and Cook Inlet during June, August, and September. We installed a new FLIR thermal infrared camera system in a NOAA Twin Otter airplane and found it to be highly effective in helping us detect harbor seals in various habitats.
We also completed a study with GeoThinkTank LLC to help us develop the optimal multi-spectral, thermal and visual sensor for use on drones (Unmanned Aerial Systems). We want to be able to use this to distinguish individual northern fur seals in the Pribilof Islands from background, which is similar in color. The next step will be to acquire the sensor and UAS system to conduct initial flights to collect imagery for developing an automated way of processing imagery using AI.
If successful, this research could be used in management decisions by providing population estimates, using fewer field personnel (and less travel costs) with less disturbance than current methods. However, the need for targeted studies deploying field personnel would still be necessary to collect critical biological information to understand population health. The NOAA Unmanned Aerial System Program Office and the NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology provided support for this project.
Image Data Processing Workshop to Improve Data Analysis Efficiencies Agency-Wide
In September, we organized and hosted a weeklong workshop, with support from NOAA’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Office. Participants, from around the country, shared experiences using new technologies and innovations for data processing. They also received hands-on training on key software packages for automating image processing. The steering committee included representatives from each NOAA Fisheries Science Center and Headquarters Offices, and the private sector. The goal was to leverage expertise in Video and Image Analytics for the Marine Environment (VIAME), structure from motion, and machine learning. Workshop outcomes included 1) a list of recommended research investments, 2) a list of potential agency- and non-agency partners who could assist with image analysis challenges, 3) hands-on training on software used to automate image processing, and 4) development of a “beginner’s guide” for using automated approaches to tackle image challenges.
Detecting Fish, Crab and Predator-Prey Relationships from Ocean-Going Robots to Complement Ship-Based Surveys and Ecosystem Studies
We successfully demonstrated the potential for expanding the range and duration of ship-based surveys with unmanned surface vehicles. We were able to demonstrate the viability of these vehicles to make long-term acoustic measurements. Working with private sector partners, we equipped a pair of saildrones with fish finders and deployed them for several months in the Arctic. The team found that the saildrones collected high-quality acoustic data over a long-term deployment of 103 days. In another experiment, the numbers of fish detected by saildrones compared well with those of the NOAA Research Vessel Oscar Dyson as the Dyson followed immediately behind the saildrone. Robots and ship-based surveys both have benefits. On ship-based surveys, scientists can collect important biological information on fish size, sex age, and diet, essential for stock assessments and ecosystem-based fisheries management. The advantage of robots is that they cost less to deploy than manned vessels, and have greater endurance because they are powered by wind and sun. Together, these two survey approaches can accomplish much more than either can alone, and they have the potential to further improve the accuracy of our survey efforts.
In another collaborative study with the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation, we demonstrated an ability to successfully apply acoustic tags to Bristol Bay red king crab and then follow their movements using novel, wind-driven autonomous vehicles (Saildrone). A record number of tagged crabs were “re-discovered” by the saildrone months after being tagged and released into the ocean. This proof of concept will be used in the future to follow their seasonal migrations and better conserve this valuable resource. With warmer ocean conditions, it is more important than ever to understand movements and distribution of valuable Alaska red king crab in Bristol Bay.
This year we also had success using a saildrone and camera equipped northern fur seal to learn more about predator-prey relationships. Using Argos satellite and transmitted GPS locations, the saildrones followed a fur seal while recording oceanographic conditions and mapping prey abundance and depth distribution using a scientific echosounder.
In 2019 we deployed upward looking echosounders along the U.S. - Russian Federation maritime boundary. This research and development project shows promise to provide a means to track and quantify fish, such as walleye pollock, as they move back and forth across national boundaries or from the Bering to the Chukchi Sea. The recorders must be recovered in 2020 and custom software will be developed to accomplish the analyses.
Advancing the Use of Electronic Monitoring Technologies in Alaska Fisheries
We continued the development and testing of new and innovative electronic monitoring technologies. We deployed stereo and chute camera systems on fixed gear and trawl catcher-processor vessels in 2019. We also deployed these technologies on NOAA Fisheries and the International Pacific Halibut Commission survey vessels. For the first time, we tested electronic monitoring systems at shore side processors to investigate alternative methods to account for incidentally caught salmon. We made considerable headway testing hardware and developing the necessary applications to automate species identification and length estimation. Using the multi-spectrum chute system, we were able to distinguish between blackspotted, shortraker, and rougheye rockfish with 91.7% accuracy. Within the salmon complex, we were able to distinguish between chinook, chum, pink, and coho salmon with 97.7% accuracy. This technology is a welcome complement to observer data collection efforts, which provide critical biological data to determine fish age, the age structure of the population, and predator-prey relationships for stock assessments and ecosystem-based fisheries management.
Speech Recognition Technology Provides Fast, Accurate Fisheries Data Collection
Each year we conduct trawl surveys. We monitor trends in fish and shellfish populations, collect biological information, and measure environmental changes. These long-term studies are vital to keeping our most productive fisheries sustainable. During surveys, we need to process samples and record data quickly on the exposed decks of commercial fishing boats. We used to do this using pen and paper, then a tablet to record the data digitally. However, newly developed speech recognition software is helping us further improve the way we record essential fisheries data at sea under challenging weather conditions. We now have the ability to quickly and accurately record species identification, count, weight, and the fate of the samples, all hands-free. We are using the application for 350 species frequently encountered on our surveys. However, soon we will be capable of incorporating the nearly 3,000 species we encounter in Alaskan waters from our trawl surveys.
Engaging the Public
Effective communication of research results with the public can build support for our research and is critical to the success and utilization of our science endeavors. We maintain an ongoing dialogue with fishermen, environmental organizations, local communities, and Congress. We are also invested in broader public outreach and education to students, teachers, and parents. Such interactions are effective in promoting mutual trust and respect, a hallmark of Alaska fisheries management.
2019 Engaging the Public Highlights
Cook Inlet Beluga Whales Citizen Project
We participated as Cook Inlet Beluga “Belugas Count!” Committee members. This all-day citizen science celebration brings together members of the public to focus on the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale, fostering local pride, awareness, and stewardship. It is a collaboration among a variety of federal and state agencies, local and national organizations, industry, and individuals. We also assisted with planning the event, participated on panels and presented research to the public.
K-12 Students and Teachers
We reached 8,918 students and teachers through programs that bring students into our labs for field trips, and take scientists into classrooms. Our long-term educational programs provide a pipeline to keep students engaged in science from kindergarten through high school, and beyond.
At our Auke Bay Laboratories, in Juneau, Alaska, we engaged students during our annual Sea Week and several programs in Juneau-area schools. We also worked directly with teachers through SouthEast Exchange, an organization that connects professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields with teachers in classrooms.
In Kodiak, Alaska, we reached students through a partnership with the local community and school, the Ocean Science Discovery Program.
We also reached out to Alaska Native communities through events like Bering Sea Days in the Pribilof Islands and the Barrow Arctic Research Consortium Science Fair in Utqiagvik, which bring scientists, students, teachers, and the community together for interactive science learning.
In 2019, we partnered with the Ecology Explorer summer program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus in Nome to present a hands-on session on fish and crab research, and to foster a discussion of subsistence traditions in the Nome area.
We conducted school presentations in Wainwright and Utqiaġvik to talk about aerial surveys of ice-associated seals.
We helped organize NOAA Science Camp, a summer science camp for middle and high schoolers, which is now in its 17th year. The camp provides hands-on learning experiences to roughly 150 youth each year. We hosted two teachers from Alaska to be educators at NOAA Science Camp: one from Scammon Bay, in partnership with the NOAA Teacher at Sea program, and one from Wasilla. We also partnered with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Tribal Government and several community organizations in Nome to sponsor four students from the St. Paul community and two students from Nome to attend NOAA Science Camp in Seattle.
This year we reached 29,939 people through community festivals, summer camps, lab tours, events at museums and aquariums, and public seminars. Our Kodiak Laboratory hosted over 10,511 visitors this year, many of them cruise ship visitors from around the world. Our Auke Bay Laboratories staff in Juneau reached over 2,500 people this year through lab tours, school events, seminars, community events, and summer camp visits. We participated in Seattle’s Fall Fishermen’s Festival and Pacific Marine Expo, and Kodiak’s COMFISH. We also shared our science with large audiences at Seattle Aquarium and Pacific Science Center events.
This year, Center scientists authored 117 research publications in peer-reviewed journals and produced numerous in-house technical and program reports. To view our publications, visit the NOAA Fisheries website.
Training Ground for Future Marine Resource Scientists
We hosted 5 high school interns and 17 undergraduate interns in addition to 29 educators. Through partnerships with local school districts as well as university internship programs, we are able to host interns from across the nation and provide them with a diversity of experiential learning, both in our labs in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, and at sea on our surveys.
Our top web feature for 2019 was “The First Recording of North Pacific Right Whale Song” with 10,486 unique page views. Our most popular blog was “Fur Seals on Bogoslof Island.” Our scientists were interviewed for hundreds of feature articles this year. Most noteworthy among them were major stories on the changing Arctic marine environment that appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Associated Press, the Seattle Times, the Smithsonian Magazine, and Science Magazine and on CBC and BBC television networks. Awareness of Center activities is widespread. One example of this is the Associated Press feature story on our northern fur seal research on Bogoslof Island last summer. The AP story was picked up by media outlets in 11 countries and resulted in 621 related stories, reaching several million people.